George Lucas Has Ruined Everything

According to Gizmodo, this is an actual, bona fide product of Lucasfilm.

I very rarely actually “headdesk,” but for that one, I did. Seven times.

Someone needs to take the license away from Lucasfilm and just stop making new Star Wars products. It’s not funny anymore. It’s not fun anymore. It’s just another over-milked cash cow that is slowly dying in the field.

And that’s sad.

If You’re Gonna Do Product Placement, Make It Believable

There’s nothing I hate more than arrogance and people trying to make me feel stupid. Well, actually, I could probably list a dozen more things I hate (procrastination, Republicans, Democrats, crony capitalism, socialism, the lack of giant robots, the high price of…everything…etc.) but those seem a bit more personal to me than other things. Aside from the giant robots. That one is all me.

Increasingly common in TV and film productions these days are product placement, when you see objects that very clearly are a company’s mark in a show. Eureka started doing this in–I think–season three when they had a bunch of extras working at the top-secret research facility wear Degree Mens’ logos on their jumpsuits. That was explained away by the new manager, who argued that they had to have product placement in order to help pay the bills (since their federal funding was cut.) That’s great; although it may seem questionable to have corporate branding and corporate advertising inside a top-secret Area 51 type place, that part was explained away by Eureka‘s tone as a comedy that didn’t take itself too seriously all the time. Secondly, the in-universe explanation tied it into the show, hung a lamp on it (to use some movemaking slang), and really made it feel like it fit and belonged there. It made the show’s universe feel more real.

Then let’s get to my favorite, Fringe. One bit of product placement that turned up a lot last year were Sprint’s new smartphones and their video chat technology (ha, take that, Apple FaceTime! Yeah! Or something like that.) That also wasn’t a problem, because it was quite subtle–just a smartphone with the Sprint logo, and then sometimes they used the video chat. The worst part about it was that the video quality was a bazillion times better than what you will ever get in a billion years (because it was all pre-filmed and then added into the scene in post-production.) Nothing wrong there. Very believable and made the world seem more accurate and deep.

I particularly like this literary technique; I’ve seen it described as “K-mart realism,” where authors will use everyday, mundane objects, products, branding, etc., to make the world they are creating more round and rich and deep and just something that you can believe actually exist. Now, if you work in film or TV, there a multitude of other concerns–namely, corporations can get upset if you use a product in a way that looks badly on the product–but sometimes it works out.

Sometimes, however, it’s just dumb.

In the current season, the Fringe protagonists have been using a Nissan Leaf to get around. Now, I don’t know any current or former FBI agents, but I would be very, very surprised to learn that an FBI agent had a Nissan Leaf as a personal car, let alone using it while on duty to investigate crimes.

(For those who don’t know what a Nissan Leaf is, it is basically a tiny egg-shaped contraption that is powered by an electric motor. It is not a hybrid–it is a completely, 100%, electric vehicle. Top Gear reviewed it and a competitor from Renault, and found it…well, wanting sounds kind of wanting, but it’s also pretty accurate. Basically, they drove it maybe fifty miles, and then had to wait approximately a day before it would charge up to be usable again. Not exactly something an FBI would want to use on the job. Or any human being, for that matter.)

Think about it. What if you had to engage in a car chase? Sure, you might get up to 80…for all of about twenty seconds, before the car’s battery died. And what is up with the journeys between Boston and the Hudson Valley (in New York)? Viewers sort of tolerated the magical two hour journeys between the Big Apple and the Big Dig because it was part of the tradition of dramatic time–that is, time moves as fast or as slow as the narrative demands–but come on, there is no way a Nissan Leaf is going to make it to Boston to Connecticut to some area just south of Albany New York (where the show’s fictional “Reiden Lake” is located) and back again on the casual charging they seem to do. You might be able to travel between universes, create bubbles in time, develop advanced cloning and precognition, and maybe even make chicken parmesean ice cream, but an electric car going that sort of distance? Give. Me. A. Break.

I otherwise have no problems with either Fringe or the Leaf; I will continue to watch and enjoy the show (though this “Alt-SuperTimeline” thing is getting a bit exhausting) and if I end up staying in the DC metro area and not go on any long-distance excursions, I might end up buying a Leaf to avoid emission taxation (which I am sure is coming down the pipeline) and high gas prices, but together, in that way? Oh come on. It just doesn’t mix.

I understand there may be other considerations–maybe they really really need the money–but please, if you’re going place a product, make it at least somewhat believable. We’re not that dumb.

Except the people watching Jersey Shore.

Fringe is BACK!!!

Peter Bishop...being Peter Bishop.Naturally, like all writers, I read and watch a bunch of other fiction. (Lately, that’s mostly turned into “Reread all of The Dresden Files and play Geneforge,” the latter of which I will rant about later, but, you know.) My favorite fiction show on TV right now is, without a doubt, Fox’s Fringe. It’s got all the bases covered: plausible science, awesome science fiction, alternate universe, great characters, humor, and wonderfully fantastic soundtracks. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that the Fringe airing nowadays is not the same Fringe that started airing four seasons ago. (Oddly enough, this is quite similar to the show’s current concept, where there are different universes that are mostly, but not quite the same.) The original Fringe was something like an updated X-Files for the 21st century, though with JJ Abrams at the helm, it definitely had a real mythology behind it, much more concrete, but still, it was them going out and chasing down monsters and investigating weird anomalies that turned out to be “scientific crimes” of one sort or another. But then it slowly morphed into this large battle between two parallel universes, which have now come to some uneasy sort of truce, but there’s still reality degradation going on that they both have to stop. I’m not saying it’s bad, mind you, I’m just saying it’s different. I can’t really put my finger on it, but the character interactions have changed, the aims have changed, the entire tone of the show has changed. Most of it’s for the better, but some of it is just…different.

Which is why the following tidbit, which I found through a random search on reviews of Friday’s episode, is pants-crappingly awesome:

TVLINE | Can you say anything about how David Robert Jones returns?
Uh… no. I can say from a personal standpoint that the fact that we’re getting back to David Robert Jones and going back basically into Season 1 to rehash all of that stuff, is super-cool. And [Jared Harris] is a great actor to have on the show. But I don’t want to give away the way [he returns], because if you’ve been watching from the very beginning, it’s a very satisfying reveal.

Well that’s interesting…hey, he made a Sim City joke, even I remember that, haha, oh this is–WAIT A MINUTE. [Scrolls back up.]

TVLINE | Can you say anything about how David Robert Jones returns?
Uh… no. I can say from a personal standpoint that the fact that we’re getting back to David Robert Jones and going back basically into Season 1 to rehash all of that stuff, is super-cool. And [Jared Harris] is a great actor to have on the show. But I don’t want to give away the way [he returns], because if you’ve been watching from the very beginning, it’s a very satisfying reveal.

HELL @#$#%^$^&%$#$ YES BABY!

Fringe just got awesome. Er. Awesomer. Pretty sure that’s a word. And if it ain’t, as a writer, I shall make it one.

Small quibble though, about Friday’s episode: why is there a flatscreen TV in a house that’s been unoccupied for, oh…twenty years? With tarps covering everything? And cobwebs? Biggo mistake there, man. Everybody is commentating on it. Including yours truly.



The disgusting truth of Reality TV

The day that should change reality TV –

This has got to be one of the most depressing stories I have ever read. In short: family allows themselves to become subjects of a reality TV show. After a while, they divorce, and then later, the husband, under the pressure of the show, hung himself.

I realize this story is about six days old, but I was just in shock reading stuff like this, that I couldn’t post immediately:

What’s so important about August 15? It was the day that put in full view the life-shattering impact that reality shows can have among couples and families on the brink. For one reality show couple, the news that day was about an ending point for a wild ride that led to separation. For the other couple, the news was about a fatality.

Russell Armstrong apparently ended his own life after years of marital and financial turmoil. The story line of Armstrong and his wife, Taylor, on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” franchise was one of tension, distance and a sense of distrust. The feelings were obviously deeply rooted long before the cameras starting rolling, and the show probably didn’t help the situation.

But America lapped it up.

On July 15, the couple announced they were divorcing. On August 15, Russell was dead, apparently by his own hands.

Weeks before his suicide, Russell said to “When you get a TV show involved and all the pressure, it just takes it to a whole new level. We were pushed to extremes.”

Could those be the same extremes that led to the very public, very nasty split between reality show sweethearts Jon and Kate Gosselin, who shot to television and tabloid infamy not because of their fertility, but because of the never-ending back-and-forth bickering that played out on “Jon & Kate Plus 8”?

It reminds me of Running Man and Death Race, in a way: we are now a culture that watches, with glee, misfortune and ugly happenings occurring to rather ordinary people. Our entertainment is based on ratcheting the pressure up on these poor souls and watching them break.

That’s seriously messed up.

It’s the central piece of all good stories, unfortunately: take a character, force him/her up a tree, throw rocks at him/her, get him/her back down. That’s how you write fiction (although sometimes I wonder if I throw enough rocks at my characters. I’m not sure. I probably don’t. Note to self: be a jerk to characters.) There are two very important differences between fiction and “reality” TV, though: first, obviously, in fiction, the characters are not real people. (Not unless you buy into Heinlein’s “Pantheistic Solipsism” or the so-calld “Fox-Broome Theory,” which in the latter case absolves you of all guilt anyways.) Second, in fiction, a very important part is getting the characters out of the tree. In reality TV, there doesn’t seem to be any of that.

I don’t watch reality TV for these reasons. It ruins lives, in many ways. Granted, if you seriously think about putting your family into a situation like that, you’re probably already messed up in some fashion, but the show itself only exacerbates that. Watching such programs only encourages and condones this abhorrent behavior, and I won’t sully myself by doing so. I hope others will feel the same way.

Let’s stop the insanity, and keep the rock-flying where it belongs: in fiction.

Fringe: The Seen, and the Unseen

If you any taste in good television, you no doubt are a fan of Fringe. Ignore for a moment that its a product of J.J. Abrams, a man who wrote the most dizzyingly confusing plot for a previous show, and made a 21st century reboot of a savored franchise that made me want to claw my eyes out. Instead, relish in the humanity of the characters, the fact that it’s driven by them rather than some outside happenings, and is based entirely on good, substantial writing. Also, relish in the fact that you can watch it on Hulu for free, which is what I do because I don’t have a TV. (Thus, I always get it a day later than the broadcast, but that’s something I can live with.)

In a nutshell, Fringe is the story of a super-secret division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, aka “da Feds,” who are investigating the crossover between their universe and a parallel one. This includes many grisly crimes of a “scientific nature,” ranging from Frankensteins, teleportation, genetic warfare, and just about anything that involves messing with people’s minds (including a program that, once it infects your computer, makes anyone looking at the monitor have a seizure and then melts their brain.) It’s like X-Files, in a sense, only it’s more understandable, and in my opinion, better written, with the plot being firmly driven by the characters. I could expound at length on how good the writing of Fringe is, but today, my main goal is to analyze the latest episode, “The Firefly,” and how it relates to an old dead Frenchman by the name of Frederic Bastiat.

The most awesome Frenchman who ever lived.

“Who?” you’re probably saying. “Look, I’m pretty sure I know what Fringe is, but who the heck is this guy?”

Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived from 1801-1850, during the end of the Napoleanic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Second Republic. (If only the States went through so much political upheaval.) He was later elected to the assembly during the Second Republic, but it is not his political career that makes him famous; rather, it is his economic writings. Although The Law (La Loi) is perhaps his most famous, the one more relevant here is his essay What Is Seen and What is Not Seen.

The basic crux of Bastiat’s argument is that while we can see what is right in front of us, there are myriad more factors that come into play, but we cannot see them immediately. We only see them much farther down the road, after the action itself, and they are generally negative. No one can really predict them, although Bastiat does allow that one can possibly foresee them:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

Walter Bishop being ridiculous. Or in other words, himself.
I see the truth!

These are the first three paragraphs of Bastiat’s essay, getting straight to the point, instead of trying to make a lead in and then burying said point in mounds and mounds of meaningless words, as many modern columnists and writers do. (I profess to having no immunity to this disease.)

To give an example of what Bastiat is speaking of, let’s look to minimum wage laws. Many–not just economists–call for higher minimum wages, in order to better the poor. “Look at these people now!” they say. “They are so much wealthier than before! They can afford health care, food, and shelter! And they spend more, so they will better our economy!” Perhaps. This is easily the seen. But what these well-meaning but ultimately mistaken individuals fail to notice–or in some cases, just ignore–is the unseen: that, with higher labor costs, companies will hire fewer people, and thus, there will be more unemployed. So indeed, one has actually hurt the cause of the poor by putting more of them on the unemployment line. (And that certainly doesn’t better our economy.)

It’s not an easy thing for people to swallow. People like to be in control, they like to know that they understand what’s happening, and that when they set out to do something, their desired result will be the real result. It’s perfectly understandable, and its not something to really be ashamed of. (Although, in my case, cursing that my car will not go around a turn at full speed in GRID probably is something to be ashamed of.) The only bad part is that people refuse to learn from their mistakes, and thus we end up with the incalculably huge, puzzling, and nigh-intractable problems our society faces today.

Fortunately, our heroes on Fringe have the humility to learn. Well, sort of.

Note, I’m not going to worry about spoiling it, since the episode has already aired and you can easily watch it on Hulu, as I linked to it above. I’m also going to assume you know a little bit about the story behind Fringe; if you don’t, read up on Wikipedia and watch the latest five episodes (or rent a season on iTunes) in order to catch up. So here is basically what happened: when Walter returned with his son Peter, they fell in a frozen lake, but the Observer, Mr. September–who I’m assured is not F.A. “Baldy” Harper, despite my initial impressions–saved them from drowning. Unfortunately, as the Observer tells Bishop in the present, he could not have foreseen the consequences of saving a human life. Transcript excerpt taken from Fringepedia, the Fringe wiki:

OBSERVER: There are things that I know. But there are things that I do not. Various possible futures are happening simultaneously. I can tell you all of them, but I cannot tell you which one of them will come to pass. Because every action causes ripples, consequences both obvious and… unforeseen. For instance… after I pulled you and Peter from the icy lake, later that summer, Peter caught a firefly. I could not have known he would do that or that because he did a young girl three miles away would not. And so later that night, she would continue looking, trying to find another one. I could not have known that when she did not come home, her father would go out looking for her, driving in the rain, so that when the traffic light turned red, his truck skidded through the intersection at harvard yard, killing a pedestrian.

Wow. You could not have received a better form of Bastiat’s axiom for the modern audience if Bastiat himself came back to life, went to Hollywood, and wrote a screenplay about it. The seen…and the unseen, even to such a being as the Observer, whom we know is both not human and is far more powerful than one, as well as possessing some unique thought patterns; certainly, one LA Times blogger finds the Observer’s plans to be “inscrutable.” But then, realizing that LA is bankrupt appears to be “inscrutable” to the local mayor, so maybe it’s just something in the water.

Now one can’t really say that this makes Fringe a libertarian TV show. In fact, Fringe is fairly apolitical, other than the general “hey, authoritarianism and secrecy is like, bad, guys” that all shows have. And that’s okay. But I found the similarities between what the Observer was saying last Friday and what Bastiat was talking about a century and a half ago to be quite striking. (Was Frederic Bastiat visited by an Observer? I suppose we cannot rule it out.) But if you do feel a need for a concrete, libertarian connection, then you need look no further than the title of the episode. I’ll give you three guesses which libertarian show it reminds you of.