TV

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

I seem to have misplaced that well-worn piece of cardboard with the pinhole in it that I usually keep by my side. But from my very oblique vantage point, it looks like Joel Hodgson is once again suckering the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 addicts to pony up money to create another round of episodes nobody needs except those pathetic and ridiculous lost souls who are content to spend the rest of their lives hermetically sealed in an echo chamber. If Hodgson has proved nothing else, it’s that people will greedily lap up large, fetid piles of horse dung as long as they’ve got the MST3K logo stamped on them.

 

Of course, he’s far from alone. Sometimes the entire culture feels like an exercise in keeping franchises on life support that should have been left to die a quiet death a long, long time ago. 

 

For those of you who don’t know, a few years back, Hodgson & associates staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign until that time to get a season of new MST3K episodes made. The shows, which ultimately landed on Netflix, were awful—terribly cast, lazily made, fundamentally unappealing. But the greatest sin of all was that, for all the money thrown at them, they just weren’t funny. Netflix fulfilled its obligation but, even though they’ll apparently re-up for just about any series this side of video of my uncle taking a nap, they decided to take a pass on another season.

 

But that apparently wasn’t good enough for the MST3K cult, which is now throwing a few million dollars more at creating another set of episodes that only they’ll watch. Of course anybody should be free to put out whatever kind of stiflingly unfunny self-congratulatory twaddle they want as long as there’s an audience for it, no matter how wretched and small. But MST3K once had some worth, and it’s kind of sad to watch Hodgson and friends and hangers-on continue to beat this particular pantomime horse well past the point of death and into dust.

 

Stop. Now. Please.

 

For those of you who really don’t know, MST3K was one of the few truly innovative TV series, a kind of stealth operation originally broadcast out of a UHF station in far-flung Minnesota. At its best, it brought a self-awareness of the mechanics and culture of TV- and moviemaking that had been absent from TV until then. And in the Hodgson era, it had a kind of dopey warmth that made it endearing.

 

The show only became successful because its initial small group of fans started sending around VHS tapes of the episodes, building a kind of clandestine viewership that, as mainstream TV began to fracture, developed a clout that would have been unimaginable in the era of the big networks. Unfortunately, that nerdy zeal, which had been one of the show’s strengths, has since become its curse.

 

To be really blunt, and cut straight to the chase, American culture has become fundamentally bankrupt, and it’s not hard to put a name on the cause: Narcissism. The best way to keep people from coming together for the common good is to appeal to their most selfish instincts, to create the illusion they’re being catered to in ways that inflate their sense of self-importance. I would be hardpressed to name an aspect of the contemporary world that doesn’t in some way exploit that inherently repressive divide-and-conquer strategy. And we all fall victim to it because we’ve all been trained to endlessly love ourselves, and no one else.

 

But it’s all just a stultifying exercise in exploitation. We think we’re being entertained but we’re ultimately just being played—a catch that always comes with the territory whenever you’re talking about franchises, which exist primarily to perpetuate their own existence and will do whatever they have to to survive. Actually pleasing any viewers runs a distant second.

 

Nerd culture, which stands quivering on the foundation of franchises, has been the death knell of entertainment. The tail of stunted emotional development now wags the dog of the larger culture, which no longer displays any nuance, maturity, or meaningful creativity but goes out of its way to pander in an effort (largely successful) to foster blind addiction. The frightening cycle of dependency embodied in MST3K is just the larger culture writ very, very small.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been, and never will be, any better than it was in its earliest days when it was funny and new, and funny because it was new. It has since become another cornerstone of pop culture that exists solely to divert those terrified of the new, to be not funny but familiar. We need to begin breaking our addiction to the tried and true and deadening sometime. This would seem like the perfect place to start.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Comfort Viewing Revisited: “Adventure Time”

Comfort Viewing Revisited: "Adventure Time"

Things are starting to feel different, aren’t they? At least here in the U.S., there’s seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel—and while we’re all hoping that light isn’t a train, all evidence indicates that we’re moving from pandemic to endemic. It’s a weird feeling, this mix of hope and hesitancy, this overwhelming feeling that it’s time for things to return to normal, mixed with the realization that our old notion of “normal” is a mythical land to which we’ll never truly be able to return.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote at length about comfort viewing—about my and my wife’s desire, bordering on need, to dive into the consoling arms of Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, that trilogy of films speaks to a longing for the mundane, for a desire to return to the way things were. Back in April 2020, the world kinda felt like the geopolitical landscape of Middle-earth, on the brink of a conflict against a nebulous foe with the power to change the course of history forever. 

 

Fast-forward a year, and circumstances seem less dire, but that hardly negates the need for the occasional comfort viewing. And I wish I could tell you I knew ahead of time the perfect fable for our current reality, but the truth is that my wife and I

stumbled upon it almost by accident.

 

Sensing that the year-long lull in entertainment is waning—that production is ramping up on all manner of new movies and TV shows and that films that have been sitting in the vault for months and months are finally emerging—the missus and I decided that now would be the perfect time for one more massive binge-watch of a TV series we’ve been meaning to revisit. We settled, after some discussion, on Adventure Time, a show I positively obsessed over in its original run from 2010 to 2018 but one my wife struggled to get into because of the erratic airing schedule and what she perceived as random weirdness.

 

In her defense, the series does start off very randomly and very weirdly. For the first few seasons, every episode is like a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot set in the Land of Ooo, an island nation populated by adorable mutants made of candy and fire and ice and slime. Its heroes—Finn the Human (the last of his kind, as far as he knows) and his brother Jake the Dog (a shape-shifting bully breed whose non-shape-shifting parents adopted Finn as an infant)—explore the world slaying monsters, delving into dungeons, honing their skills, 

collecting loot, and just generally acting like the goobers they are. In short, it’s just a really good action-adventure-comedy cartoon with its own style and vocabulary.

 

When I originally watched Adventure Time, I couldn’t put my finger on when things changed and it started to develop a consistent mythology and take itself more seriously. But watching it straight through for the second time on HBO Max (where, by the way, it looks way better than it did on Cartoon Network), it’s pretty clear things take a turn sometime in the third season. Here the dots start to connect less ambiguously and it becomes undeniable that the Land of Ooo doesn’t merely resemble the remnants of our world in many ways, it literally is the remnants of our world, one thousand years in the future, after a global nuclear conflict laid waste to civilization sometime after Cheers went off the air but before high-definition displays rose to prominence. (Those may seem like the weirdest of touchstones, but such are the calculations one has to

make when attempting to piece together the 66-million-year timeline of Adventure Time.)

 

The show’s haphazard mythology and piecemeal philosophy are actually what make it such a wonderful parable for this moment we’re living through. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, which was the meticulous creation of one man—a sort of rejection of Nietzsche wrapped up in an attempt to construct the kind of English mythology Tolkien presumed would 

have existed had the Normans not come along and Frenched everything up—Adventure Time was never the work of a single mind. True, series creator Pendleton Ward heavily shaped the direction of the show until sometime during the fifth season, when he stepped down as showrunner. But neither he nor his successor, Adam Muto, held too tight a leash. Writers and storyboard artists were free to explore whatever territory they saw fit, and as the series went on, it became increasingly more philosophical and poignant. And weirder.

 

The philosophy that emerges from that assemblage of diverse thinkers is understandably a little hard to pin down. But in broad strokes, it could be summarized as follows: People change. The world changes. A lot—unavoidably. And that’s scary. But we can persevere by joining with one another to share our art, play, and laugh at silly things while also doing the hard work of keeping civilization working.

 

The first real coalescing of that philosophy comes in the seventh-season episode “Everything Stays,” in which Marceline the Vampire Queen, in coming to terms with her own mortality, reflects on her thousand-and-three years of life and remembers a song sung to her by her mother in the days just before the civilization-ending Mushroom War. The lyrics to that song really say it all:

 

Let’s go in the garden
You’ll find something waiting
right there where you left it
lying upside down.

When you finally find it
you’ll see how it’s faded
the underside is lighter
when you turn it around.

Everything stays
right where you left it
everything stays
but it still changes
Ever so slightly
daily and nightly
in little ways
when everything stays

 

True, there’s a lot of wiggle room for interpretation in those words, as there is for everything about Adventure Time, especially in the second half of its run. It helps to know that those lyrics were inspired by a formative event in the life of series storyboard artist and songwriter Rebecca Sugar, who lost her favorite stuffed bunny in a garden when she was a child, only to find it some months later, sun-bleached and damaged by the elements. It was still the bunny she loved, but it wasn’t. It was different, and yet she loved it no less.

 

Taken in the context of the series, those lyrics also tie into larger themes of ongoing transformation and upheaval. In the mythology of Adventure Time, the world is visited once every thousand years by a catalyst comet—an agent of change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but inevitable either way. 

 

As my wife and I started to get to the part of the story where the catalyst comets start to come into play, I couldn’t help but think how apt a metaphor all of this is for our current moment. We’re coming to the end of one pandemic. We don’t really know what waits for us on the other side, but we know it won’t be like things were before. And we know that global pandemics of this sort are destined to become the rule rather than the exception if we don’t stop packing our populations so tightly and encroaching on the natural world with seeming impunity. But we’ll make it through the next one just like we made it through this one—hopefully with a little more wisdom and a lot more planning, but probably not. 

 

All of the above is a bit of a reductive view of the series. It’s about so much more than that. It’s about growing up, getting old, dying; parenting; and self-identity and self-actualization (the latter a concept Tolkien apparently found repugnant). In many ways, the later seasons almost read like a thought experiment plucked straight from the pages of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. As many others have noted, Adventure Time is also in many ways a rumination on bad fathers and the damage they do. 

 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the show’s creators exploring a lot of the same territory as Sartre and Camus, toying with existentialist notions without ever fully embracing Existentialism, acknowledging the absurdity of life without truly committing to Absurdism. In many ways, Adventure Time lands in a place Camus would have eventually reached if that tragic car accident hadn’t cut short his fascinating metaphysical evolution. 

 

In the midst of all that, it also manages to be a fascinating critique of American foreign and domestic policy (certainly a topic on a lot of people’s minds in recent years), a deconstruction of the notion of libertarian free will that avoids the trappings of fatalism, and a meditation on the merits of utilitarianism—all wrapped up in a zany cartoon that is, if not overtly aimed at children, at least kid-friendly. 

 

But when you get right down to it, all of that is really secondary to the driving ethos of the show, which is summed up beautifully by the finale (one of only two truly perfect series enders in modern television history, alongside The Good Place). In one of the show’s darkest moments, when the evil deity GOLB is unleashing unknowable chaos upon the Land of Ooo, one of the series’ main characters—BMO, a sentient portable game machine/media player with a penchant for creating elaborate film noire fantasies to entertain him/herself—accidentally stumbles upon the one weapon that can stave off such discord: Harmony. The world is literally saved by a sing-along. 

 

If there was some amazing force outside of time
to take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we can see it all, all, all

It would look like:
Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And there we are, again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then

 

The Lord of the Rings is a comforting lie—one of the best ever told, in fact. It’s everything myth should be, and will always be the balm I reach for during the darkest hours.

 

The funny thing is, I didn’t return to Adventure Time looking for comfort, but I found it nonetheless. For all its stretchy half-alien mutant canines and bubblegum people and interdimensional weirdness, this show is the reassuring truth I didn’t know I needed right now, and in some weird ways it’s helping me come to terms with this new world ahead of us. Because if there’s one underlying message of this sweeping, chaotic, and singularly beautiful tale—aside from the fact that art is a weapon against darkness—it’s that even if things seem OK for now, they’ve gotten bad before and they’ll get bad again . . . not in exactly the same way, but close enough that there are lessons to be learned. 

 

And perhaps its most salient lesson is this: No matter how donked up the world gets—and it will indeed get donked up, over and over again—we all have the strength to persevere, so long as we open ourselves up to a bit of weirdness and embrace a lot of uncertainty. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

A Die-Hard Rocker’s Take on the Grammys

A Die-Hard Rocker's Take on the Grammys

For the past 30 or so years, I’ve been irritated, disappointed, infuriated, and occasionally thrilled by the Grammy Awards. They’ve gone with the safe and conservative rather than the groundbreaking and deserving choice far too many times; they’ve had controversies in how they pick their nominees and winners; and, most of all, because so many great artists and bands out there are far better than the ones that get the awards, but will never have a chance in hell of winning a Grammy—unit shifters win over critics’ darlings almost every time.

 

That said, I promised myself I’d keep an open mind, even though I’m an old rocker, which in the pop music world these days is synonymous with irrelevant dinosaur. On the other hand, since I didn’t know what most of the music was going to sound like, I wouldn’t have many preconceived notions about it. An advantage: My 20-something daughter was on hand to prompt her clueless dad. I watched the CBS broadcast; I couldn’t be bothered with the various online add-on viewing options. Maybe I am a dinosaur.

 

It was surreal yet symbolic to see host Trevor Noah opening the show on a deserted outdoor stage with the Los Angeles Staples Center (stadium-sized product placement!) in the background. Clearly, the pandemic-era Grammys was going to be something different. Somehow this stark setting was simultaneously unnerving and uplifting—yes, we are living in a different, virus-ravaged world but, no, the human spirit will not be defeated. I found this much preferable to the usual Hollywood over-the-top schlock production. (The glitz and glamor would come later, with the artists spread out inside the Staples Center, waiting for the sun to go down.)

 

The Grammys always opens with star power and this time out, Harry Styles had the honors, performing “Watermelon Sugar” resplendent in a black leather suit and enviable pecs. Jeez, the guy can sing and the band was tight, but the lightweight song isn’t my kind of ear candy. This scaled-down Grammy Awards set made the awards feel more intimate and relevant. Billie Eilish immediately followed, performing “Everything I Wanted” in a post-apocalyptic glamor-twisted-inside-out outfit. I like her and her voice, but standing there with an Intense Look with four chords droning over and over again ain’t exactly Michael Jackson moonwalk-level excitement.

 

Haim was the third act, and as it turned out, the only band of the night that remotely resembled rock music, though “The Steps” was more of a pop song. In fact, while other music genres have been marginalized throughout the Grammys’ history, in 2021 it was rock’s turn—other than Haim, there were no rock performers. None! None! None!

 

But nice, friendly intimacy and Styles and Eilish and all, where was the star power? I didn’t have to wait long. Presenter Lizzo got up and gave Megan Thee Stallion her award for Best New Artist, and even though she was yet to perform, it was obvious that Stallion had that it, that indefinable something (besides looking absolutely great). Still, the show’s energy level wasn’t there yet, although Black Pumas hit some heights.

 

With Black Pumas and the emergence of rapper Dababy, who I confess I’d never heard of, the energy started kicking up and the show shifted into Full Production Mode with “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch. A young black guy dressed in white with a group of older white women, “The Baby Boomers,” dressed in black; machine-gun rapid-fire rapping against an angelic choir—it made a statement. Then came the first act that really grabbed me—Bad Bunny, the most-streamed artist of 2020 (jeez, I really gotta get with the program) performing “Dakiti” with Jhay Cortez on a striking purple-and-white set that looked like a giant eye. Great rhythm, singing, irresistible futuro-Latin beat—now we’re talking!

 

At 45 minutes in, the Grammys finally kicked into high gear with the emergence of Dua Lipa. She looked fantastic and sounded terrific performing “Levitating” and “Don’t Stop Now,” joined by Dababy on a laser-beam set that was literally dazzling with beautiful pink lasers beaming through clouds, an all-out singing, dancing, costume-changing production number. Good songs, too. Not that I’m any great seer, but this woman has got it. The absolute standout of the night. Megastar is written all over her.

 

Some tough competition immediately followed: Performing as Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak simply killed it with their new single, “Leave the Door Open,” a retro-soul song complete with matching big-collar ’70s outfits with heart-shaped glasses, smooth harmonies, and soaring vocals. Man was Mars good. Is it just me or are these kinds of interesting melodies, harmonies, and songcraft what’s missing in so much of today’s pop music? Well, when you consider bands like the Spinners, the Temptations, the Chi-Lites, Hall and Oates . . . um, it ain’t just me. Stupendous. (Their later Little Richard medley was

A Die-Hard Rocker's Take on the Grammys

Miranda Lambert

far less successful. Even talents like Mars and Paak can’t compete with a titanic talent like Richard. Then again, who can?)

 

If rock music was nonexistent during the 2021 Grammys, country music wasn’t far behind. If you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time and tuned in you’d think the entirety of country music consisted of Miranda Lambert. She won the Best Country Album award for Wildcard, and performed the song “Bluebird.” But, aside from Brandi Carlisle doing a heartfelt solo rendition of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” and Mickey Guyton (the first black woman to be nominated for a country-category Grammy) performing the decidedly un-country-sounding “Black Like Me,” that was it for this once-dominant music genre. Not sure what to make of that. Yeah, Taylor Swift did a song, but it sounded more pop than country to me.

 

I am sure what the main takeaway of the 2021 Grammys was, though—the ascendance of women in pop music, Particularly black women. The show was absolutely dominated by women and to a lesser extent black male hip-hop, R&B, 

soul, and other performers. (And do these categories even matter anymore? Sure, it’s a way to package and present music in consumer-understandable genres, but wouldn’t it be less marginalizing to just call it music and do away with ethnic and racial pigeonholing?)

 

Additional highlights included the magnificent singer Brittany Howard doing an utterly soaring version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with pianist Chris Martin and band during “the artists who passed away in 2020” tribute segment; Maren Morris bringing it to Hozier’s song “The Bones” complete with scene-stealer John Mayer on guitar; and Lil Baby making some very heavy social commentary in his song “The Bigger Picture.” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”/”Savage” combined old-school Grammy retro visual glamor with a strange musical combination of sensational state-of-the-beyond orchestration mated with songs this aging rocker didn’t like. Couldn’t listen, couldn’t take my eyes off it. Doja Cat put on a striking future-world lasers and costume show for her song “Say So”—the lighting designer should get an award for this one.

 

Another showstopper, unsurprisingly, came late in the (too long) night: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion doing “WAP” (check the official video, and the acronym will become clear) to the tune of more future-world metal-woman wardrobes (it was a popular look for Grammys 2021), absolutely insane over-the-top visual effects and animation, a bigger-than-life bed and a lot of booty shaking (another popular trend for the night and again, I’ll leave it to others to discuss the social ramifications—it felt like empowerment to me). Weird, different, creative, nasty, crazy.

 

Beyoncé made Grammy history by winning her 28th, for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” She now holds the record for most-awarded female artist. Taylor Swift also made history by winning Album of the Year for the third time, this time for Folklore. (Though deserving, the Grammy’s musical conservatism rears its head here once again.)

 

Lowlights for me? Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding”—this was a Record of the Year nominee? BTS’s “Dynamite”—this kind of fluff might be someone’s thing but not mine. And the general lack of, I’m sorry, songcraft. Where are today’s Bob Dylan, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell? I want to hear “songs,” not “tracks.”

 

To wrap up the night, Billie Eilish won Record of the Year for “Everything I Wanted.” Maybe the Grammys are getting hipper after all. Certainly the 2021 edition had less artifice and more heart, and that’s a trend I’d like to see continue.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another “WandaVision”

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another "WandaVision"

As I’ve said before (so much that regular readers are probably getting sick of hearing it), Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed everything for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the film that showed us how MCU movies could rise above the tropes and trappings of superhero cinema. And it’s the film that gave the movies that followed it the freedom to play around with genre in interesting ways. If Winter Soldier hadn’t worked and hadn’t connected with audiences, I don’t think we would have WandaVision today. I just don’t think Marvel would have had the courage to make it.

 

But WandaVision, in its own way, changes everything yet again. The precedent set by this series is that you can take the single most mainstream intellectual property in the world and get abstract with it. You can experiment. You can out-bizarre Twin Peaks and still hang onto your fanboy audience, many of whom latch onto the MCU for no other reason than the wish-

fulfillment/power-trip aspect of it all.

 

Well, you can hang onto a lot of them. I have to admit, geeky though I may be, I’ve pretty much divorced myself from geek culture since the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi—mostly due to the toxicity of it all, but also because the loudest contingent of fantasy/sci-fi fans on the internet no more understands the properties they love to wax neck-beardedly about than my American Staffordshire Terrier understands quantum chromodynamics.

 

The few discussions I’ve seen about WandaVision, now that it’s over, frustrate and infuriate me in equal measure, because here we have a story that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be human, in a way no film or TV series of any genre has in ages, and the only things the Comic-Con crowd wants to discuss are why Mephisto didn’t make an appearance or whether Agatha’s rabbit familiar, Señor Scratchy, is secretly her son Nicholas Scratch from the comic books.

 

All fun topics to talk about, mind you, as frivolous as they 

may be. But can we take a breather from the soap-opera discussions to focus on what made WandaVision legitimately good? Can we appreciate that the company known for making movies about dudes fighting robots in their pajamas had the courage to tell a story in which the primary antagonists are grief, pain, cognitive dissonance, and consequences? And not physical manifestations thereof, but the actual human emotions?

 

Can we maybe take a breather from geeking out over the big action set-pieces to appreciate the fact that the biggest knock-down, drag-out battle in the finale was won not with fists or laser eyes, but a philosophical argument centered on the Ship of TheseusCan we talk about the fact that, as weird as the first half of WandaVision was, it avoided the biggest sins of the aforementioned Twin Peaks by knowing when to back off the eccentricities, lest they lose their value?

 

Look, I’m not saying WandaVision was perfect. I found it more than a bit disappointing when the penultimate episode overexplained too many of the series’ earlier abstractions, assuming I suppose that some of its audience may not have been able to connect the dots for themselves. But such slip-ups are few and far between, which is surprising for a show that works on so many levels.

 

WandaVision is, obviously, a story about struggling with grief and the toll that struggle can take on those around us. It’s also a meditation on our weird relationship with media—how we influence it and how it influences us, both overtly and subliminally. It’s a clever examination of shifting cultural norms, and how what we accept as normal today is as much a manipulated affectation as any of the tropes of the past.

 

The series’ strengths lie in its uniqueness. And yes, you could point to previous films it resembles in the most obvious of ways, such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show. But such similarities are mostly superficial (except, of course, for the latter’s framing of tragedy disguised as comedy, which this show appropriates with devastating effectiveness). WandaVision is, for all its references and call-backs, its own thing. Which is why I’m worried it’s going to be used as a template, now that it has proven successful.

 

I’m already seeing fans start to beg for a second season, and Marvel’s suits are being coy in their responses. And that terrifies me. As a lifelong fan of these characters—one who’s smitten with how they’ve been interpreted for screens large and small—I obviously want to see their stories continued. I’m as invested as could be. But I want to see Paul Bettany and Lizzie Olsen portraying Vision and the Scarlet Witch in new stories, told in new ways, not awkwardly fumbling around with attempts at capturing lighting in a bottle.

 

WandaVision was perhaps the most satisfying and self-contained narrative I’ve seen unfold in ages. And now it’s over. It’s done. There’s no more of this story to tell. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to replicate it. And if you need evidence of that, just look at the number of new streaming services that have come out in the past year with meaningless “+” symbols stapled onto the end of their names.

 

Yes, yes, I know. A streaming service and a TV series are not the same thing. But Hollywood has a knack for aping what works without understanding why it works. When Disney+ launched back in 2019, that binary operator at the end of its name actually meant something. It was shorthand for “Disney + Pixar + Star Wars + Marvel + National Geographic.” What the hell does Apple TV+ connote? Much less Paramount+, the new name for the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access? Paramount + what, exactly?

 

And so, in keeping with that entertainment-industry tradition, it stands to reason that we’ll eventually see at least a few feeble attempts at replicating the self-referential, heartfelt-story-framed-as-classic-sitcom container in which WandaVision was delivered, with no thought given to what that device actually meant in the context of this story.

 

The most I can hope for is that Marvel doesn’t attempt to scrape this barrel again, and certainly not with these characters, because wishing for anything more than that would be like Charlie Brown, facing that football once more, hoping beyond hope that Lucy doesn’t yank it away at the last second.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Want to Dig Deeper into “The Mandalorian”? This is the Way

It’s difficult these days to have any meaningful discussion about Star Wars without obsessing over The Mandalorian. This lightning-in-a-bottle Disney+ series has the sort of universal appeal that none of the main saga films have enjoyed since The Empire Strikes Back. (And let’s not forget that TESB wasn’t so universally beloved until years after its initial release.)

 

There’s good reason for the series’ universal appeal, of course. As I said in my wrapup of the first season, The Mandalorian is a wonderful deconstruction of everything that made the original Star Wars such a smash hit. In breaking the galaxy far, far away down into its essential components (the gunslinger, the samurai, the strange-but-familiar environments, the wonderful sense of mystery, the thematic through-lines of honor, familial baggage, and redemption) and recombining them into a shape

we’ve never quite seen before, the series continues to be both stimulating and comfortable, both innovative and grounded in the past.

 

One thing I said about the series’ first season no longer rings true after the second batch of episodes, though. In my Season One overview, I made an offhand comment about the show’s “tenuous connections to the larger mythology,” despite the fact that that season ended with the appearance of one of the most legendary Star Wars weapons of all time: The Darksaber.

 

In Season Two, the connections to the legendarium become much less tenuous, much more overt, and much more central to the underlying themes and meaning of The Mandalorian. And it’s that last point that’s most important, because the simple truth is that you don’t really need to know the history of Mandalorian culture or its various factions to follow the plot of this past season. That history simply helps in unpacking what it all means.

And I can say that pretty confidently, because I talk to so many of my friends who are absolutely gaga over “new” characters introduced in Season Two who aren’t new at all. Characters like Bo-Katan Kryze, played to perfection by Katee Sackhoff not only in this live-action series but also in three seasons of The Clone Wars and one particularly memorable episode of Star Wars: Rebels. I was worried, when rumors of Bo-Katan’s return started circulating on the internet, that she would feel shoehorned into this series, that her presence would feel like fan-service of the worst sort. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. To misquote Voltaire, if Bo-Katan hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent her for Season Two to make a lick of sense.

 

This season also features the return of Ahsoka Tano—perhaps the single most beloved character ever created by George Lucas, but one that many fans of The Mandalorian had never heard of or only knew secondhand thanks to hyper-nerds like myself. Again, though, due to the way showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have woven her into this series, you don’t really need to know Ahsoka’s backstory to understand her mission in The Mandalorian. But I would argue that you do need to

know where she has come from and where she’s going if you want to truly understand why she’s on that mission.

 

The point I’m trying to not-so-subtly make here is that you can go into The Mandalorian having only seen the original Star Wars films and not really feel like you’re missing anything essential in terms of plot. You may get the sense that there’s a larger story unfolding that you’re not privy to, but that’s always the case with any good Star Wars story. But if you haven’t watched The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, you actually are missing out on a deeper level of understanding that’s just sitting there waiting for you to discover.

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: Rebels . . .

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

. . . and in The Mandalorian

I’ll give you just one example, although I feel the need to throw out an obligatory spoiler warning here for those of you who are making your way through Season Two slowly in an effort to ameliorate some of the pain caused by the long wait for Season Three.

 

In the epic finale of this season, there’s a moment in which Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, offers the Darksaber to Bo-Katan after being informed of its cultural significance. This moment (shown at the top of the page) almost perfectly mirrors a scene from “Heroes of Mandalore,” the Season Four premiere episode of Star Wars: Rebels. There, a Mandalorian named Sabine Wren offers Bo-Katan the blade and Bo-Katan accepts it, although not without some hesitation. In the season finale of The Mandalorian, she rejects it outright. And I won’t get into all of her political reasoning for doing so, as the episode spells all of this out. My point here is that the mirroring of these two scenes adds an extra level of tension to the finale and quietly tells a tale we haven’t seen unfold in any form to date.

 

The fact that Bo-Katan refuses to simply accept the Darksaber this time around, when we’ve seen her do so before under nearly identical circumstances, tells us something about the character that no amount of exposition could convey nearly as artfully. Namely, it tells us that she blames herself for the so-called Great Purge of Mandalore and the genocide of her people, an event we’ve only heard about in rumors and retellings.

 

I could go on and on, rambling about little nuggets of this sort you can glean from viewing The Mandalorian in the context of its animated forebears, and I’ve done so in private conversations with friends who love the live-action series but seem hesitant to watch “kids’ cartoons.” It honestly doesn’t help my case that The Clone Wars didn’t start off with a bang. Even as a devoted fan, I have to admit that the first season was childish and wildly uneven.

 

But by Season Two, The Clone Wars gets good. Really good. By Season Three, it’s honestly some of the best Star Wars ever made. And by Season Four it transforms into one of the best TV series of all time, subject matter be damned.

 

So, if you’ve tried getting into The Clone Wars and found it a tough pill to swallow, I recommend giving it another try—but this time around, skip the bulk of the first season. Watch “Rookies,” the fifth episode, then skip to the final four episodes in that first run: “Storm Over Ryloth,” “Innocents of Ryloth,” “Liberty on Ryloth,” and “Hostage Crisis.” Objectively, they’re nowhere near the quality of later seasons, but they’ll give you a good foundation for what’s to come, especially the second-season episodes that really lay the foundation for The Mandalorian, starting with Episode 12, “The Mandalore Plot.”

 

Star Wars: Rebels gets off to a similarly uneven start, and I wish I could give you a similar cheat sheet for which episodes are skippable. But you’ll just have to trust me on this one: By the time you get to the end of Season Four, it becomes clear that there wasn’t a throwaway moment in the entire 75-episode run. It’s simply one hell of a slow burn.

 

All seven seasons of The Clone Wars and all four seasons of Rebels are available to stream on Disney+, and it’s worth noting that the streaming provider presents the former with all of the content that was censored by Cartoon Network in the original broadcasts. Don’t go in expecting anything overtly gratuitous or vulgar, but I often advise my friends with young children that the series explores the implications of war in a way pre-teens aren’t quite mature enough to digest. So take that for what it’s worth.

 

Of course, we can’t know for sure how much of an impact the events of The Clone Wars and Rebels will have on future seasons of The Mandalorian, especially given that there’s no clear and obvious path forward for the series. Taken as a whole, the first two seasons of this wildly popular live-action show have told the tale of a man whose sense of self was predicated on a moral code that he never questioned—until forced to do so. It’s the story of a man whose ideology begins to conflict with his principles, and whose entire notion of who he is and what he stands for has been torn to shreds as a result of his own empathy and moral awakening. By the end of Season Two, Din Djarin has succeeded in his quest and as a result is left with nearly nothing—no purpose, no culture, no tradition to fall back on and believe in. As such, where his journey goes from here is nearly anyone’s guess.

 

But I have a sneaking suspicion that however this story ends up blossoming, the seeds will have been planted in The Clone Wars and Rebels.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

The Canadian province of Newfoundland may seem a strange place to set a TV series to those who live on the North American mainland. To apply what John McPhee once wrote of Alaskas relationship to the lower 48 states, Newfoundland is a foreign country largely populated by Canadians.

 

But because it is so small and insular, the capital and largest city, St. Johns, with a population of just 114,000, makes an unexpectedly interesting setting for the under-appreciated streaming TV series Republic of Doyle.

 

Republic of Doyle, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hit whose six seasons stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime, has all the elements of a successful series. Its about a loving but frequently squabbling father-son team of private detectives. The co-creator, main writer, and showrunner Allan Hawco plays Jake Doyle, whose impulsiveness and risk taking dont serve him any better than it did when his brashness got him kicked off the St. Johns police force. While solving crimes, he still causes trouble that requires balancing by the slightly steadier hand of his dad Malachy, played by the veteran Irish actor Sean McGinley.

Its built around family; it blends comedy and crime, sex and romance with finesse. But the most important character may be St. Johns itself. Hawco and company are keenly aware of the foibles of a place where English is spoken in an accent that may require subtitles or closed captions for other English speakers, where the slang may seem foreign to other Canadians, much less Americans. Hawco and 

Want to See Some QLCF?

You can find Republic of Doyle on Amazon and NetflixSpiral resides on Hulu, while Nit i Dia can be found on AmazonThe Paper on Netflix, and Bordertown (Sorjonen) on Netflix.

most of the rest of the ensemble cast are natives of Newfoundland, and their fondness is evident for the quirks of a place where police and thieves, doctors and gangsters, all seem to have known each other since high school.

 

The importance of place is recognized in meta fashion in Episode 10 of Season One. A pretentious Toronto-based crime novelist Garrison Steele (played with comic condescension by the fine Canadian actor Victor Garber) shows up in the Doyle home with the intention of writing a new book based on Jake and the Doyle clans peculiarities. My publisher wants me writing QLCF. Can you believe it?”

 

A clueless Jake murmurs: QLCF?”

 

Quaint-location crime fiction,” Steele says. He suggested I try Newfoundland. . . . The seafood seems passable, and you speak something like English, so I agreed.” Jake reluctantly agrees to let Steele accompany him on a case, and a sub-genre of international streaming TV has been given an official moniker. 

 

Quaint-Location Crime Fiction has become one of the great allures of streaming TV, now that so many channels—including Netflix, Amazon, PBS Masterpiece, and others—have gone deeper into programs that take place all over the world. The 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

appeal is obvious in this time of staying at home: Armchair travel was never easier to places some of us have never ventured, or even considered visiting.

 

One of the rules of QLCF is that it avoids the visual clichés TV long used to identify larger cities. The long-lasting French police and justice series Spiral works because you almost never see a shot of the Eiffel Tower or a storefront on the Champs-Élysées. Exteriors are mostly shot in arrondissements where tourists

never tread, immigrant banlieues where even the police dread to visit. Its not exactly QLCF because it is in Paris, and much of it takes place inside the corridors of power, like Law & Order: Paris.

 

American network shows rarely get it: Hawaii 5-0, with its touristy shots of Waikiki beaches, is not QLCF. Neither is NCIS: New Orleans, with its try-too-hard French Quarter headquarters and broad clichés about music and food. Perhaps Miami Vice, with its pre-mega-monetized South Beach locations, could thank its quaint location for some of its success.

 

But QLCF isnt just a setting, or a studio set, in the streaming world. Indigenous architecture, especially when shot on streets that capture neighborhoods, homes, and apartments that take you behind the doors where the characters might live, are part of the appeal. Here are some recent favorites that make the most of their QLs.

Nit i Dia (Night and Day). Amazon Primes Catalan-language show, is set in Barcelona. While most QLCF is set in smaller cities and towns, Nit i Dia stays away from the tourist areas to show the private side of the metropolis. The ensemble revolves around forensic specialist Dr. Sara Grau (Clara Segura), who 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

becomes deeply involved in the hunt for a serial killer. Like many of the characters, she is unhappily married, a paragon of professional responsibility with a singular compulsion: engaging in the anonymous and semi-public hookups for which Erica Jong coined the phrase zipless” sex. She is far from the only unhappily mated member of the large, talented ensemble of doctors, cops, judges, lawyers, and psychiatrists, whether married, unattached, gay, or straight, with kids or without.

 

There are exterior shots of the massive modernist buildings designed by Gaudi and Miers van der Rohe that Barcelona is known for, but the interiors that take us into the homes and workplaces of characters gives Nit i Dia its quirky flavor. There are scenes of churches from which a killer seeks his prey, and neighborhood bars where thugs, drug dealers, and prostitutes gulp beers and plan their schemes.

 

Most Spaniards live in apartments, according to a survey in The Atlantic, and Nit i Dia likes to go inside the buildings. If youve ever visited a large European city and wondered where the residents really live, Nit i Dia will show you. The dark, depressing railroad flat in which a divorced fireman lives, detesting his aging mother and doting on his middle-school age son, gives a hint of the struggles of his divided personality. A guilt-ridden judge, miserably married to his crippled classical-music-critic wife, are evidently well-off, but they live in a claustrophobic apartment, crowded with a piano and the sound of bitter music. In a middle-class neighborhood, a suspected killer gets stuck in an old-school single-compartment cage elevator during a power outage and the other apartment dwellers try to break into the elevator to capture him before a power restoration somehow allows him to escape.

 

It seems purposeful, then, that Dr. Grau and her moody, immature husband, a volatile self-absorbed sales manager, live in a pretty, modern house, with plenty of glass, an indoor swimming pool, and a surfeit of marital strife.

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

The Paper (Novine) is a newspaper drama (not to be confused with the London-based Press) takes place in Rijeka (population 128,000), the third largest city in Croatia. Much of the show appears to be shot there, although credits (in Croatian) cite locations in Zagreb as well. The first Croatian-made series on Netflix, the drama centers on an independent newspaper in a corrupt country, region, and city. The black, white, and 

red fonts in the opening credits remind one of the childhood riddle from a time in which everyone read print newspapers: Whats black and white and re(a)d all over? (The concept may also be borrowed from the color scheme of Masterpiece Mystery.)

 

Like print newspapers everywhere, Novine is proud of its independent journalism and struggling to survive. The series begins with a fatal automobile accident and hints of a police cover-up. Initially pursuing the story, the editors and reporters start feeling political pressure to leave the story alone. Though these journalists are finely attuned to the labyrinthian ethical landscape in which they must work, they are unprepared for the disruption caused by Novines purchase by the corrupt construction executive Mario Kardum. Editors are fired; an ambitious, talented woman reporter is promoted to run the paper; and, as always, power corrupts. Reporters flee or stay, depending on their ability and willingness to compromise their integrity. The drinking of local beer and fruit brandy, for sorrow or celebration, is ubiquitous. The sex, of the easy-come, easy-go variety. Cigarette smoking is so universal it seems mandated by Croatian law.

 

Rijeka has a lovely-looking port when looking out from the city, but the landscape is filled with construction cranes, cracked cement, houses built on hills with little regard for zoning regulations, and a surfeit of crooked cops, politicians, and clergy wielding power, by fist, gun, blackmail, or through the pages of the newspaper. Its a small city, and its hard to stay out of the way of trouble, especially if youre one of the throwback journalists seeking the truth.

 

Scandanavian noir has been a staple of QLCF even before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crossed over to the mainstream. The venerable Wallander (the original Swedish version) is set and filmed in Ystad, Sweden, where the detective played by Krister Henriksson drinks, walks his dog by the Baltic Sea, and broods while pondering the crimes in his small city—the prototypical example of QLCF.

Bordertown, a Finnish show known in Finland as Sorjonen after the main character, is a particularly interesting example of the sub-genre, and the first Finnish series go to international, via Netflix. (A third season of Bordertown came to U.S. Netflix in May.) Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) is a cop of 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

extraordinary mental acuity. His wife has been treated for brain cancer: It seems like a good idea to relocate to her quaint, quiet, scenic hometown, Lapeenranta. It would seem like a nice place to raise their teenage daughter, too, if it wasnt for the teenagers easy access to drugs and a roaming pedophile sex trafficker terrorizing young teen girls. The move from city to country is a staple of quaint location crime fiction, and it never works out for the cop and family looking to lighten their load.

 

Set and shot in largely in Lapeenranta (scenes in Season One were also filmed in Estonia and Lithuania), the small city of 73,000 is equidistant from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, and about 18 miles west of the Russian border. Its a popular tourist magnet and center of commerce. But theres a lot of bad stuff happening here, and like the St. Johns of Doyle, everyone knows everyone else: Paulina Sorjonens high school boyfriend is now the deal-making mayor of the city.

 

Sorjonen joins the Serious Crime Unit of the small police department, and it seems both financial shenanigans and heinous sexual crimes involving both sides of the border require his attention. Hes a crime-solving genius with poorly developed social skills: A flashback to his childhood shows signs of autism, or perhaps what used to be known as Aspergers. His quirks include barefoot, nearly headache-inducing trances to focus on suspects and solutions, twisting his limber, lanky torso in some sort of inner tai-chi knot while he rearranges his notes on the wall.

 

Hes a fascinating character, but only to the extent that his personality seems a perfect match for the place. A Lapeenranta tourism website quotes Bordertown show creator and native son Miikko Oikkonen as saying the town is depicted in the series as if it were one of the main characters. Which, of course, is an essential requirement of Quaint Location Crime Fiction. Walking tours of Sorjonens Lapeenranta are available.

Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, 
and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–
1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in
Queens, NY.

Netflix is Garbage

Netflix is Garbage

Remember back when consumers bought discs? DVDs and Blu-rays, remember those days? Remember when, upon entering the store, there were inevitably bins or large containers with copious amounts of bulk DVDs and later Blu-rays in them? These bins were usually marked ‘Sale” or “Three for . . .” and whatever was thrown in was whatever B-Movie or failed Hollywood attempt had been taking up valuable shelf space. Remember those bins? Of course you do.

 

Whatever happened to them? 

 

They turned into Netflix. That’s right, everything that seemingly was destined for the three-for-one rack at WalMart is now a Netflix Original film—complete with shiny new posters, trailers, and marketing budget. Only beneath the veneer, it’s the same old shit.

 

Make no mistake, I love me some Netflix, I do. But lately, its has been letting me down. Case in point, last night my wife and I watched Fractured, a “thriller” that bowed on Netflix last week. Admittedly, I am a complete sucker for films such as Fractured, having once been at the helm of a micro-budget, horror/thriller myself. I get the genre, and I appreciate it. But, like many before me who were swept up in the horror craze that inundated Hollywood not too long ago, we learned that just because you could sell your film, that didn’t make it good.

Netflix is Garbage

Fractured

Case in point, my foray into the micro-budget, horror/thriller genre was a complete disaster on multiple fronts. Thankfully, our platform or home was the upstart Hulu long before it became the go-to TiVo of sorts for all the networks. No one watched my monstrosity, and I’m grateful for it, for, like Fractured, it was bad.

 

You see, Fractured is like a lot of films bowing on Netflix lately—all style and zero substance. Make no mistake, 

aspects of the film look great. It was clearly made by competent people, and it has a solid cast anchored by Sam Worthington (Avatar), but damn if the writing and subsequent editing don’t turn a slick piece of semi-well-acted cinema into a flaming bag of crap that just got placed on millions of virtual doorsteps. And this has been occurring on Netflix a lot lately.

 

In the past 30 days alone, I have watched a half dozen or so Netflix Originals that have been tantamount to virtual kidnapping. Films such as The Titan, What Happened to Monday, The Laundromat,  In The Shadow of the Moon, and Bright (shown

at right) are all perfect examples of efforts that had just enough going for them on paper that someone was bound to throw money at them, but not enough to make any of them good or even watchable.

 

I get it. Netflix is trying to take over our collective streaming-entertainment world, and for a while there it seemed like they were going to pull it off. But an early lack of competition was mistaken for success and a healthy 

Netflix is Garbage

dose of hubris has shown us not what Netflix was supposed to be, but the reality of what it is. Netflix is a modern-day WalMart DVD and Blu-ray store shelf. Sure, there’s some great stuff for sale, but most of it’s trash, so rather than sell you on quality, they’re going to kill you with quantity.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

The Highest Rated Series Isn’t on TV

The Highest Rated Series Isn't on TV

Times, they are a changin’, and nowhere else is this more evident than online. No, I’m not talking about streaming, for saying streaming is changing the game is so 2018. What I’m talking about is original content being created by people like you and me.

 

We’ve discussed the democratization of media on this site and on the podcast, so it should come as no surprise that I’m discussing it yet again, but something rather huge has just taken place on the tubes of you. A content creator by the name of Shane Dawson just created a video series, entitled The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star, that has garnered CBS-primetime-level viewership.

 

Let’s back up. For those of you who don’t know, Shane Dawson is a filmmaker, producer, and YouTuber. Notice I said filmmaker and producer first, for I feel that the title of YouTuber is seen as a negative in the eyes of older generations, and I’m

not here to take anything away from Mr. Dawson or his achievements. Dawson has been on YouTube for many years, arguably “growing up” on the platform before it became YouTube as we know it today. As a result, he has amassed quite a following—twenty two and a half million followers to be exact.

 

While Dawson may have risen to YouTube fame via 

the production of cheeky skit videos some years ago, it is his new, more personal work that has caught my attention. I say this with all due respect, but Shane has emerged as a sort of Oprah-esqe figure on the platform.

 

Dawson’s latest series, a collaboration with beauty mogul Jeffree Star, is the culmination of everything his past work has been building to, as he follows in Star’s footsteps in an attempt to launch his very own line of cosmetics. While the title of the series may seem like a bio piece on Star, it really is Dawson’s journey that proves the most compelling, for, like the audience, the wild ride that is the life of Star is all new to Dawson. Part One of the series aired this past Tuesday, October 1st, with Part Two set to bow Friday, October 4th, with more episodes to follow.

 

So what does all this have to do with anything?

 

While the reach and power of social media and those we call influencers is undeniable, Dawson’s latest effort has managed to do something few—if any—independent, self-financed, self-created content has managed to do on a free, public platform . . . garner more viewers than many primetime network shows.

 

Ratings darling The Big Bang Theory wrapped this year, and its final episode was viewed by 18 million people in its time slot. 18 million people. Another stalwart (and advertising favorite) Monday Night Football routinely draws about 10 million viewers. Game of Thrones’ final episode drew 13 million eyeballs.

 

In truth, most shows on TV or otherwise fail to put up these sort of numbers routinely, many often doing half on their way to being unabashed “hits.” I’m shining a light on these three figures as examples of extreme cases of overwhelming success

according to traditional media because Shane Dawson’s latest series bested all but one of them with 15 million views (and counting).

 

Now, I don’t pretend to know what Dawson’s overhead costs are, but they can’t be as high as the cast and crew costs of The Big Bang Theory’s final season—hell, its final episode. Moreover, Dawson uses off-the-shelf equipment obtainable by anyone within reach of a Best Buy or a laptop with an Amazon account, which only adds (I think) to his content’s appeal. For as produced as it may be behind the scenes, it’s still undeniably real.

 

While many of you reading this may look at YouTube and those who create content on it as little more than children

making videos for children, I assure you it is not. It’s big business, and the more viewers Dawson and others like him rack up, the more folks like you and I will have no choice but to take note. While it may be chic among Baby Boomers to be Team Netflix over CBS, know that it’s an old trope. The future of entertainment is being shaped not by those who presided over the old guard only to repackage it as something new, but rather by a group of individuals like Dawson who said to hell with it all and did their own thing.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.

 

 

Cable & Satellite

DELIVERY  Really starting to show their age

CONTENT  Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage

You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), ChernobylBillions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.

 

Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.

 

 

Internet TV

DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable

CONTENT  Virtually identical to cable or satellite

Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.

 

As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.

 

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV

DELIVERY  Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K

CONTENT  What you’d expect from broadcast networks

The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.

 

These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can findvia an antenna of one sort or another.

 

 

Standalone Studio Streaming Apps

DELIVERY  Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better

CONTENT  All over the place—but that should improve, too

The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.

 

 

Hulu

DELIVERY  HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again

CONTENT  Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.

 

In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.

 

 

YouTube

DELIVERY  Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?

CONTENT  Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent

Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create 

content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.

 

You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runsstuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.

 

Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.

 

 

Amazon Prime Video

DELIVERY  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

CONTENT  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselTransparent, and HomecomingAnd with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.

 

Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.

 

In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.

 

 

Netflix

DELIVERY  Unmatched for a provider of original content

CONTENT  Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres

Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.

 

What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.

 

 

Vudu & iTunes

DELIVERY  Consistently excellent

CONTENT  No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead

Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not 

yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).

 

Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.

 

These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.

 

 

UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape

DELIVERY  Unrivaled

CONTENT  No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs

While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.

 

Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.

John Higgins & Dennis Burger

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Why “Game of Thrones” Looked Like Crap

Why "Game of Thrones" Looked Like Crap

If you spent any amount of time on social media this past Sunday night or Monday morning, you were probably inundated with tweets, grams, and posts about Game of Thrones. The episode, “The Long Night,” has been a long time coming. White Walkers and the people of Westeros met at Winterfell in a battle of epic proportions. After two episodes of everyone coming together to protect humanity, the viewing public was aching for a fight. But most of the online feedback wasn’t about the content of the episode. Sure, there was some bickering about who killed who—and for good reason. But the real issue was this:

 

It looked terrible.

 

Many lamented that the episode was too dark, and it was hard to see what was going on. It was a night battle that lasted 82 minutes, notoriously shot over 55 consecutive night shoots. The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, discussed his approach for the episode with the Vanity Fair podcast “Still Watching,” and that the series in general is shot using a lot of 

natural light. The idea was to be able to “evolve the lighting” and have the “storytelling of the lighting evolve with the storytelling of the characters.” Unfortunately, it led to an incredibly dark presentation that was difficult to follow. (If you remember, there were similar complaints when Solo was released, a dark film shot with natural light that looked awful when shown at improperly-calibrated theaters.)

 

In a way, the experience was heavily dependent on the quality of your display and calibration. If your display crushes black at all, you’re losing detail. If your display has a high black level, you’re also losing detail. And any ambient light in the room at all can make it hard to see.

 

But the most egregious issue of all didn’t have anything to do with the filmmaking. It was due to how the episode was delivered by HBO. Every single shot had banding artifacts caused by the compression. No one was safe from it. Not Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen, not even the White Walkers. It consumed the entire episode.

 

Some articles point to the fact that everyone was streaming it at the same time, causing the system to overload. So far, I’ve watched the episode in three ways: A recorded version from DirecTV, a stream from the HBO Go app on an Xbox One X, and a stream from the HBO Go app on a Sony X950G. All three exhibited the banding and blocky blacks, although the stream from the app on the Sony looked the best.

 

There wasn’t one particular problem that led to the poor presentation of this long-awaited episode, but rather a snowball of issues. The way it was shot was already going to challenge displays—especially those with black-level 

issues (hello LCD!). That HBO didn’t seem to take that into account and used the same compression they use on everything only made it worse. Finally, most home displays aren’t calibrated (or have the aforementioned black-level problems) and had no chance.

 

The last remaining hope for “The Long Night” is that HBO will address this issue when it releases it on (hopefully) 4K Blu-ray. But at the rate they’re releasing the seasons on UHD, we might have a better chance of seeing George R.R. Martin actually finish writing the series.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.