Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” Outstanding, Creative and Unnerving; “Mythbusters: The Search” An Unwatchable Rip-off

Every once in a while, I come across entertainment options – be they movies, television shows, miniseries, music or books – that are good (or bad) enough that they merit mention. For the most part, I try to concentrate on those things that are good because there’s enough crap that is out there (you hear me, Taylor Swift?) that people can normally pick out and ignore. The last time we looked at entertainment, we chose the NBC television series Timeless and, so far, that looks good. All the brass at NBC seem to be leaning towards giving the show a second season (but the jury is still out).

So what looks good right now? And what is total crap? Follow along and see if you agree, disagree or have some suggestion for something to check out. I’m always looking for something enjoyable (WRITER’S NOTE:  I am not saying I am “first” on these things; I’m merely saying they’re well worth (or, in those certain cases, not worth) your time to check out).

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

undergroundrailroadbook

My first experience with Whitehead was with a book called The Noble Hustle. The book in principle was about the world of poker but, as I read it, I wasn’t entranced with what Whitehead was doing. He wrote the book as a semi-autobiography, a tome to excoriate the demons in his own soul, and as such never really reached me in trying to write a “poker book.” In fact, when you use such lines as “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside” and pretend to be from a country called “The Republic of Anhedonia” (anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, such as hobbies, music, social interactions), you get the idea.

Thus, the idea of reading another Whitehead book was roughly akin to having a manicure done with bamboo shoots.

Recently, my lovely wife and I wanted to experience some “adult time” by getting involved with a local book club. The book of their choice for the month was Whitehead’s latest effort, The Underground Railroad, which made many Book of the Year lists for 2016 and was on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. I reluctantly picked up the book and, after reading the premise, decided to give Whitehead another chance.

Whitehead’s book is, as you might figure, about the Underground Railroad of Civil War history. In Whitehead’s vision, however, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor for the hundreds of miles that runaway slaves had to traverse; in his writings, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad line, complete with trains, engineers, conductors, stops and rails to convey those runaway slaves to a supposed “better place.” With this creative starting point, Whitehead has gone on to write an outstanding book, albeit one that is also quite unnerving.

colsonwhitehead

The Underground Railroad is the story of a slave named Cora who, even for someone of her race in that era, had a very difficult life. Her mother was a successful runaway (or was she?) who left her an orphan when she was but 8, immediately banishing her to a life as a second tier being even in the slave community. The resulting banishment to a place for the “unwanted” called “The Hob” on her plantation – as well as other brutal moments – helps to formulate the person she becomes.

Cora meets a slave named Caesar who, in a spirited discussion, invites her – and I guess that would be the term – to run away with him. She initially spurns his offer but Cora, after a particularly vicious beating by the slave master while she protected one of the children from being assaulted over an accident, decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps and flee the plantation.

The twosome head off on the trek on the literal Underground Railroad and the book traces their travels on the rails as they attempt to journey to freedom – or what is supposed to be freedom. The book winds its way through the south (North Carolina is treated particularly harshly and, knowing Whitehead’s research abilities, deservedly so) to Indiana (also the recipient of harsh review), with Cora the central part of the action. There are several chapters that focus on other characters in the book (of particular interest is the slave hunter looking to bring Cora back to the plantation), but those are used by Whitehead in a Tarantino-esque manner, jumping about in time, to provide backstory to what Cora is going through.

Be forewarned…this is not a pleasant read (and part of the reason why my lovely wife decided she couldn’t work her way through it). There are brutal examples of the harsh life on the plantation, including the inhuman treatment of runaways when they were returned to their masters. It is a part of the story, however, and if Whitehead were to gloss over such issues or treat them with “kid gloves,” then he wouldn’t be doing his job as a writer or a storyteller.

Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is deserving of all the accolades that he and the book have received. It is critical to be able to see what our past was to ensure that in no way or manner should it happen to another segment of the population in the future. While it used a little trick to get me in the door – the Underground Railroad being an actual railroad – the overall story gave me a more extensive knowledge of 1860s America and gave me a better appreciation of Whitehead and his talents. The next book I see from him, I will not be as dismissive as I was in the past.

Mythbusters: The Search, Saturdays (check local listings)

mythbustersthesearch

They’ve been saying that the reality television genre is dying, but for me at least it died when the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters went off the air in 2016 (repeats can still be seen on the Science Channel). The show, featuring special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, spent 15 seasons investigating through scientific methods urban myths, scenes from television and movies, and particularly interesting news stories they came across. Along with their “Build Team” – Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara (and, prior to that, Scottie Chapman and Jessie Combs), who were let go from the show in 2015 – the Mythbusters investigated 282 episodes of information, coming to the conclusions of “Confirmed,” “Busted” or “Plausible” for 2,950 experiments.

As with most things when special effects, robotics and artistic people take hold of it, there were some things that stood out on the show. In the final episode when asked what they would be remembered for, Hyneman said bluntly, “Blowing shit up,” and that they did. But they presented a show that used excellent scientific methods, creativity, was fun and educational and kept your interest. With the Mythbusters crew gone – hell, even “folklorist” Heather Joseph-Witham, with her historical background information on the myths being tested, is remembered fondly for her one season on the program – there was a gap to fill and, problematically, they decided to tarnish the name of this program to fill it.

mythbusters

Airing on the Science Channel on Saturdays, Mythbusters: The Search is an attempt to make the original program a reality/competition show much like Survivor or The Amazing Race. Ten competitors gleaned from a batch of video applications compete in front of host Kyle Hill (the editor of Nerdist and a Mythbusters fan), RETESTING old myths that the Mythbusters tackled (giving them the excuse to run video of Savage, Hyneman and the old crew). At the end of each episode, one person is eliminated with no apparent scoring or reason for their departure other than a talk between Hill and one of the peripheral participants in the original Mythbusters (a Mythbusters favorite, the Alameda County Sheriff’s officer Sgt. J. D. Nelson of the Alameda County Bomb Range, was the latest to serve in that position).

Catching lightning is tough enough – as Discovery did with the original show and Mythbusters – and it is virtually impossible to do it twice. Mythbusters: The Search is a pale imitation of the original in that literally NONE of the people competing for the prize (and what is the prize? Are a few people being chosen? Is there going to be a woman (tough now that they’ve already sent one home and have two left) on the team? Is there going to be a show in the future? WHAT ARE THE RULES?) have even a sliver of the “it” factor that the original cast had. There isn’t that “TEAM” concept that made the original group so special and, thus, this product suffers.

The fact that there aren’t new “myths” being investigated is also relying on the past team to try to carry this worthless heap. After two episodes, the four myths tested were all previously done by the original Mythbusters (including “Painting with Explosives”) and there was no new information gleaned from redoing the experiments with the 10 pretenders. All that was done was…well, nothing was done, save for the elimination of two contestants that were about as important as the wallpaper.

While it is commonplace in Hollywood (and other entertainment locales) to recycle anything to make another buck, you’ve got to make it good if you want people to watch. There is nothing remotely redeeming about Mythbusters: The Search that makes it worth watching now or in the future. If you yearn for the days of the original gang, check out Byron, Bellaci and Imahara’s work on the Netflix series White Rabbit Project. If you go to the Science Channel for your Mythbusters dose, make sure it is a repeat of the original and not the dreck of Mythbusters: The Search.

“Cutting the Cord” If Only for A Day

CuttingCord

I thought it would be an interesting experiment. I’ve read quite a bit lately about people who have been ditching their cable or satellite companies – “cutting the cord” as it is called – and just going with what can be found on their computer or other streaming services. For the last couple of years, I’ve owned a Roku 3 (a great Christmas gift from my lovely wife) and use it quite frequently, especially during the baseball season. As an experiment, I thought I would give it a day’s trial, just to see if I could “cut the cord” for a simple 24-hour period. You might be surprised about a couple of things that occurred.

It is something that is happening more than you think across the United States and around the world. Estimates are that as many as 10% of U. S. homes are disconnected from traditional cable or satellite service. A 2014 survey by Mike Vorhaus of Frank N. Magid Associates for a trade conference estimated that 59% of U. S. households paid for a subscription video-on-demand (VOD) service and Netflix was 43% of that group. Finally, that same survey from Vorhaus noted that, among 18-34 year olds, television as the primary medium for entertainment was down to only 21%. Two years later, imagine where those numbers are…

My experiment, however, didn’t get off to a great start. First of all, getting up in the morning and turning on the television was distinctly out. As I prepared my son’s lunch for school, I absentmindedly hit the television in the kitchen for CNN. Just as quickly, I shut it off as I reminded myself what today’s experiment was to be about. After I returned home, it was fortunate that I had some work to do and a doctor’s appointment because I wasn’t concerned about what was either on the television or what I was missing from the news. This was good and bad, in my opinion.

Being able to get your work done – especially for someone like myself who works from home – takes a great deal of discipline. Sure, part of the reason we do it is for the flexibility of the situation (my wife and I also save a great deal on child care), but to be able to look at what you have to complete from a work status and be able to achieve those goals while sitting in your abode is something that all people enjoy. The down side is that, yes, we do work from home so we can have a few extra niceties, such as the television on in the background; I especially like CNN because it isn’t something that you have to concentrate heavily on and, in the cases of “BREAKING NEWS,” it allows you to keep on top of what’s going on in the world.

After the doctor’s appointment, I tried to use one of the new features from CNN, CNNGo, which brings their live broadcast to your computer screen. As I halfway listened to the news that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was “absolutely, positively NOT” going to be the GOP’s savior at their convention in Cleveland (sure, Paul…just like you “DIDN’T WANT” the Speakership), it suddenly cut off and I brought up the window. Sure enough, I reached a situation that many do when they try to break away from their cable service.

To be able to access CNNGo (and, as I was to find out later with my son, to be able to access Disney Junior), you had to have an active cable service account. While CNNGo asked for several of the prominent carriers in the business – names such as Charter, Xfinity, DISH Network and others – they didn’t come up with mine:  Time Warner Cable. As such, I couldn’t WATCH CNNGo on my computer – and my son could not watch Disney Junior through the Roku 3 later in the day – because the companies cannot come to a financial agreement so that CNNGo or Disney Junior can be offered on the computer or Roku (you can, however, access them through the Time Warner app that is available through the Roku…figure that one out). This is one of the reasons that pisses off many with the whole “cutting the cord” thing; in reality, you’re not cutting the cord because, at the minimum, you have to at least have minimal cable service to be allowed access to certain channels, whether it is on the computer or through such a streaming device as a Roku.

Roku4After this revelation, the next problem arose as to the “break away” from the cable company. I sat back and watched, through Poker Central, some of the action from the Global Poker League on the Roku 3 during the afternoon and got a bit restless. Taking a look around, there were very few free streaming channels that you could find to actually watch any type of substantive programming (PBS is good for this and free, but fun isn’t the first thing you think of with PBS). To be able to have any selection to be able to choose from, you had to have access to something like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu Plus, each of which charge a monthly fee for access.

These three are the “power brokers” in the new streaming world (“streaming” being whether you watch on your cellphone, your computer or through a device like the Roku) and could have a seismic impact on the shape of the television world in the future. They have already had an impact on programming, beginning to offer their own scripted television shows that have garnered critical acclaim (at the expense of the traditional television networks). But would people actually move to a piecemeal system like this over the traditional cable system?

Some studies suggest that the bundled channel system that cable companies use actually save customers money rather than cost them more, and there’s some evidence to suggest that they may be right. If your cable company offers a basic cable package for $20 per month (and that’s about as base as it gets in many areas, pretty much offering the local channels and a few other stations like the Weather Channel, CNN, ESPN and others), that is normally what people will watch; where people get irritated is when they have 300 channels and nothing is on. With the streaming outlets, you pay somewhere along the lines of $9 a month for Netflix or Hulu (Amazon Prime is $99 per year), but you might have to pay $4.99 for this station to get access over your streaming device and another $4.99 to access another station…it begins to mount up if you have several access points.

Then there is the factor of live sports. Pretty much every sports league has some sort of live package where you can watch every game from the league (except the National Football League; at this time, the NFL Sunday Ticket package is still the domain of DirecTV, although you can pay to be able to watch, on a tape-delayed basis, the NFL games the next day). These packages can range in cost up to $129…if you put that together for baseball, basketball, hockey and hell, let’s say the NFL comes around and does it too, it’s over $500 per year. That’s not counting any NCAA collegiate games, NASCAR, Formula 1, Indy Car, Major League Soccer, Premier League…you might be getting my point by now.

ESPN Plaza - Bristol CT

Then there’s the monolith known as ESPN. Losing money left and right nowadays (as much due to the competition from outlets like Fox Sports, the CBS Sports Network, the NBC Sports Network and insane fees to the sports leagues for broadcasting rights), ESPN has been considering taking the route of Netflix into an “a la carte” service. According to a 2015 article from The Motley Fool, 40% of people would be willing to pay $10 per month for a “Netflix” version of ESPN. The problem is, the Fool states, that ESPN would need at least $15 per month from subscribers AT THIS TIME to maintain its current standard of performance revenues. This isn’t even looking into the future, when the marketplace is further crowded and the bidding wars for rights fees for athletic events gets even more bloodthirsty.

By the time the Yankees game against the Toronto Blue Jays ended tonight on the Roku, it was time to end the “cut the cord” experiment. I had proved I could do it – there’s enough out there and there is the capability to still watch what the television networks provide, if you’re willing to wait in some cases – for at least a day, but any longer might be a stretch. Perhaps in a few years, when the streaming networks have become more like the cable companies and are actually offering “channel packages” and the cable companies have gone truly “a la carte” to allow their customers to choose ONLY the channels they want, then it would be good to try it again. Right now, I’ll dance between the two worlds quite happily – and enjoy them both immensely.

“The Man in the High Castle” Is Captivating Television

It has been some time since we took a look at some of the new offerings from the movie, television or music worlds and that is a good thing. First of all, I’m not going to waste your time telling you about something that is completely awful (I know I said Quantico wasn’t very good, but it hasn’t been canceled yet…that means some people must like it). If I am going to take the time to offer up something, 9 out of 10 times it is going to be worth checking out (or at least I think so). That is what we have when we look at a new offering that has just been released.

HighCastle

There is a completely new world out there when it comes to the streaming services. The days of when these outlets simply provided a way to catch the latest movies or watch an old show (or a new one) are causing rapid changes in what they offer. Part of their attractiveness is that they can be watched over virtually any device. In the beginning it was just computers, then the outlets branched into tablets, cellphones and video game devices. Now, the HDTVs that come out (with the spanking new 4K technology and “smart” TV capabilities) have one or more of these streaming outlets pre-programmed on them.

Maybe it is because of the above that the streaming outlets made the moves they did. Such outlets as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu Plus have decided to swan-dive into the deep end of the pool and produce their own shows rather than just offer the other networks’ material (and, in most cases, pay out the ass for the programming). Since I wasn’t around for the start of House of Cards or even Orange is the New Black, I am trying to find something that I can get into that is new to many (and can take over while I wait for the spring session of Blindspot and the second season of Mr. Robot to start) and it appears that Amazon has the next big thing.

Released on November 20, The Man in the High Castle is a ten-episode series that was foisted on the public all at once, meaning you can take it in the traditional episodic doses or can fully immerse yourself in it through a “binge.” This method of “broadcasting” (hey, it’s the only term I can think of that applies) has its pros and cons; it does allow you to blast through it in one big marathon but, if you take it one or two episodes at a time, you might forget that you are watching it and not go back to the series (confession:  I DVRed The Player, meaning to watch it but never did. It was canceled two episodes into its run). With High Castle, I sincerely doubt that someone is going to forget they have it in the library.

The series is based on the book of the same name written by one of the great minds of U. S. literature, Philip K. Dick. Dick, who wrote the science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that eventually became the basis for the classic 1982 film Blade Runner (one of my personal favorites), this time steps into the alternative history genre and has the same impact there that he had with science fiction. The person who brought High Castle to the air, Frank Spotnitz (best known for his work on The X-Files), also deserves kudos for producing an excellent product.

The year is 1962, ten years removed from “V-A Day,” or the day that Nazi Germany and the forces of Imperial Japan defeated the United States in World War II. As a part of the peace, the Nazis take over the Eastern part of the United States virtually all the way to the Rocky Mountains, renaming it the Greater Nazi Reich; the Japanese, for their efforts, take over from the West Coast to the Rockies with their Japanese Pacific States. Between the two, running the ridges of the Rockies, is a Neutral Zone to separate the Nazis and the Japanese that has become an area to provide living space for segments of society (minorities, homosexuals and other “deviants”) that would otherwise be persecuted or even killed for who or what they are.

It is a tenuous peace between the two international powers, however. An aging Adolf Hitler is in failing health and, as Himmler and Goebbels jockey for position to take over from him, the Japanese grow concerned that Hitler’s death would result in warfare that would force them out of the former United States. Since the end of WWII, Germany has become a technological powerhouse, developing the hydrogen bomb and planes that fly from New York to San Francisco in two hours, while Japan has languished in its imperial peace. This is an important part of the program, but it isn’t the only plotline to pay attention to as the show continues.

The show opens up with a young man, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), visiting a factory in New York City on the seemingly innocent premise of looking for a job. He strolls through a totalitarian Times Square replete with the Nazi swastika burnished on video boards and flags and, upon reaching the factory, finds the manager. As we sit in on their meeting, we discover it isn’t for a job in the factory; Joe is being hired to drive a truck across the Greater Nazi Reich to Canon City, a town in the Neutral Zone, for The Resistance, a rebel alliance looking to oust the Nazis from the country.

After demonstrating his will to do the job, Joe gets the keys from the manager just as Nazi troops raid the factory. While the bullets fly, Joe is able to get away from the factory intact, but everyone else is not so lucky. The Nazis summarily execute everyone who was in the factory save for the manager, who is taken into custody and, as we find out through the first episode, tortured mercilessly.

As Joe is doing this, we go to San Francisco where another part of the story is developing. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who has assimilated nicely into a post-war Japanese society (taking aikido lessons and embracing their medicinal and cultural offerings), is stunned to meet up with her half-sister who tells her she has a great new job. Later in the evening, Juliana and her sister meet again under much more dire circumstances; Juliana’s sister hands her a package and cryptically tells her to take care of it before running away. As Juliana hides in the shadows, Japanese soldiers execute her sister in the street.

Running home, a perplexed Juliana (why would soldiers kill her sister) looks in the bag her sister gave to her. In the bag is a film entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and, after viewing the reel, Juliana discovers it is an alternate reality film based on what happened if the Allies had instead won World War II (you with me so far?). Spurred to action by watching the film and the death of her sister, Juliana leaves her boyfriend (Rupert Evans) who hides that he is part Jewish, a crime punishable by death even in the Japanese Pacific States, and heads for Canon City with a ticket procured for her sister to make the trip.

The remainder of the first episode brings our protagonists to Canon City. Blake has what might be called an uneventful run but discovers that, out on the Great Plains, hospitals are crematoriums for the sickly and elderly instead of healing (remember, that’s Nazi Country). Juliana has her own issues, with a female passenger on the bus she is taking to Canon City mysteriously stealing her belongings but not the movie reels. The first episode ends with a twist that I honestly didn’t see coming and, after seeing it, nearly made me rocket into the second episode rather than allowing the first one to sink in fully.

Beyond the point that we have several different plotlines intersecting in this one hour – the impending death of Hitler and the potential for war between the Nazi and Japanese, the trips of both Blake and Crain to Canon City to do what isn’t exactly known and the film (is it possible it’s true?) and its purpose – there is an attention to detail in creating the false reality of “this” divided U. S. nation that is remarkable. There are far too many things to point out that helped to convey the dread and dismay of the conditions of living in such a situation and, with the supporting cast, all viewpoints are offered (Crain’s mother hates the Japanese for killing her husband; Blake meets a police officer who was in the U. S. military but now accepts his fate with the Nazis). It potentially indicates that there are some deeper analogies that we might see in the future of the program.

The Man in the High Castle also showed me that there is a new reality to the future of television. Unrestrained by broadcast guidelines or traditional “broadcasting times,” these shows being put out by the streaming networks are quality works that should demand a great deal more attention from the viewing public. If every program was of the high quality that High Castle is, then there would be a greater impetus to “cut the cord” from normal cable and network broadcasting, which have become staid with their product.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out these streaming channels, you’re missing out on what could be a bountiful arena of choices for your viewing pleasure. You’re definitely missing out on one of the best programs of the year with The Man in the High Castle; I’d suggest climbing onboard the wagon soon for both the show and for the streaming channels.

The Coming Downfall of Broadcast Television

Roku4

There have been some things that have been consistent in the average person’s life when it comes to entertainment. The theater has been around since the Greeks and Romans put plays on in their massive outdoor amphitheaters and musical concerts have almost the same longevity. The change has come in the way that those things – acting and musical performances, along with sporting events – have been delivered to the populace.

In the really “old days,” the only way to partake of these artistic or athletic endeavors was in a live setting. With the creation of radio, it became possible for people to join in on a concert or sporting event from several hundred, even thousands, of miles away. When television came along in the 1920s, the picture was added to the radio broadcast and became the preferred way for people to witness events from thousands, even millions (remember the moon landing in 1969?), of miles away. As technology improves, however, many of these avenues are becoming extinct or may become extinct over the next decade or so.

First to go was radio. The normal terrestrial radio – replete with commercials – lasted for over 100 years before the advent of satellite radio came along. At first, many said “I’m not going to pay for radio,” but, as time, technological improvements and personal choices came to the fore, people decided to pay for satellite radio. Today, SiriusXM and its array of channels challenge terrestrial radio across the board in the ability to deliver breaking news, sporting events and musical events and artists’ recent musical output. It doesn’t bode well for the future as more terrestrial radio stations become “automated” – basically eschewing live DJs for stale canned programming to reduce costs – and the satellite stations boom, basically destroying an industry 100 years or more in the making.

A similar situation is happening in the world of television. Just a little younger than the radio industry, television has been a staple of U. S. households since it was popularly mass-produced in the 1950s. Over the past 60-plus years, television has not only brought to those around the world important historical moments – the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the standoff at Tiananmen Square, the bombing of Baghdad in the first Gulf War – but has also brought hours of entertainment through movies, musical concerts, comedies and dramas.

Those traditions are quickly changing and nothing shows it more than the recent announcements from two powers in the television world, one a major network and one a cable powerhouse. It was announced on Monday that CBS Television Studios would be bringing a new entry into the Star Trek universe come January 2017. While not commenting on what tack the new series will take, it does have the power of Alex Kurtzman, who produced the 2009 theatrical version of Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, behind it.

The crossover of Kurtzman from the Big Screen to the Little Screen isn’t the important change, however. CBS has already stated that the premiere episode of the new Star Trek series would be broadcast on its regular network airwaves. Following that, the premiere and each new episode would be seen on CBS’ brand new on demand outlet, CBS All Access, and would not be broadcast on the traditional airwaves ever again.

After this announcement regarding the CBS/Star Trek partnership, it was announced on Tuesday that longtime cable television giant HBO and former The Daily Show front man Jon Stewart had joined forces for him to issue commentary during the upcoming 2016 Presidential campaigns. So what will be the name of Stewart’s new show that will premiere next year? It won’t be a show and it won’t be on HBO, fans; it will be “short form digital content,” or online efforts, with Stewart offering commentary that will appear over HBO’s on demand and streaming outlets HBO NOW, HBO GO and other arenas.

What do both of these legendary entries do? Sidestep the traditional broadcasting arenas in favor of online or “streaming” outlets, signifying that there is a coming downfall of broadcast television.

NetflixLogo

Since the beginning of the 21st century, this transition has been pretty easy to see coming. Netflix wormed its way in with its creation in 1999, initially offering only DVDs to customers as an alternative to the “big box” movie rental outlets such as Hollywood Video or Blockbuster Video. Not only did Netflix crush those outlets with its business plan, they soon grasped onto the idea that they could do television just as well as the traditional broadcast networks. Such now-acclaimed dramas and comedies as House of Cards and the resurrected Arrested Development got their start in 2013 on Netflix and the acclaimed Orange is the New Black premiered in 2014. Since these and other shows premiered, Netflix has earned over 50 Emmy nominations and won 11 times.

After Netflix showed the way, there were many who followed. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video now have their own streaming video networks in addition to their usual movie rentals and they have made their impacts not only on broadcasting but on awards shows with their own original programming. Even the traditional networks, such as what CBS has done above, have entered into the digital arena.

ChromeCast

If you’re going to have the non-traditional broadcast sources, you have to have a way to get it to the people. With Roku, ChromeCast, AppleTV and software on the Xbox and PS4 video game systems, there are ways to use an internet connection to pretty much see anything that might appear on network television that same day or within a couple of days of a program’s original broadcast (if it is on the network’s digital outlet, then the next day). The combination of these internet streaming options plus the drive to sever the ties with cable could very well doom the traditional network outlets and cable television.

Cable television, as traditionally offered by Comcast, Time Warner and several other outlets, offers different packages for homes in their areas. Households can pay anywhere between $20 (for the barest bones package that basically only gives the local broadcast networks) and $300 (for every bell and whistle available, not to mention internet access and/or phone) for cable television programming. If people were able to make the choice to buy the channels that they like and want – say a Netflix here, an ESPN there, etc. – and pay drastically less than what they pay for cable, people will do that in a heartbeat.

Cable broadcasting will more than likely end when those device providers – Roku, ChromeCast and the others – start providing “bundles” of channels at a low price for their viewers (this might also be the saving grace of broadcast television in that they could negotiate rights, much like they already do with the cable companies, with the streaming providers). These “bundles” could offer local television station programming, a sports channel or two, a movie channel and a news channel for next to nothing. You could have a sports package, a movie package or a news package to go alongside the local channels that can be picked up with a digital antenna. Then there is always the fallbacks of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that could bring the programming.

There is one problem that could be present for those looking for the utter devastation of cable. Live televised sports still provide the most viewers in television – look at the numbers for football’s Super Bowl or for soccer’s (the rest of the world’s football) World Cup. The individual leagues have been looking to this, however, and have come up with streaming options that could easily make their way to a streaming home.

Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv is something that is offered year round (usually using the feeds from the local team’s affiliate) and the National Football League recently broadcast one of their games between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars not only from London, the United Kingdom but also exclusively streamed over the internet. If the individual leagues can figure out a way to remove the broadcast networks from the equation and monetize their offerings, they will be the first to “cut the cord.”

And this doesn’t even add into the mix the expanding world of mobile programming, or watching traditional television on your cellphone…

The moves by CBS and HBO (and others, to be honest – the situation is rapidly changing) to bypass the traditional network broadcasting routine for straight-to-digital broadcasts signifies a seismic change, a strange new world for the future of television broadcasting. Will the other companies in the industry catch up? Will the cable companies be able to make adjustments in their offerings? Will the streaming channels and the devices that provide them take the idea of “cutting the cable” all the way to the logical fruition of cable’s destruction? The coming years will provide the answers.

“Blindspot” A Grey Story That Keeps You Guessing; “Quantico” Misses the Mark

If the calendar has passed the Autumnal Equinox, it must be time for the newest television shows to hit the airwaves of the traditional television networks. Usually these new programs are retreads of past tropes (cop shows! buddy comedies! fish out of water situations!) or are as intriguing as watching a hangnail, which is pretty much the reason that many viewers have left the traditional networks for the various cable, pay networks (HBO, Showtime, etc.) or the growing streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). Still, there are a few shows that will break out for the networks and make it worthwhile to watch commercials.

It is estimated that the major television networks call for somewhere between 20-60 “pilots” to be filmed that will give them a crop to go over and decided which are worthy of airing (or, on the other hand, give them fodder for what used to be the “slower” summer schedule). Cable networks may be counted in this as, once a network has decided to pass on a particular project, it may be revived by such networks as TBS, TNT, FX and others for their channel. This doesn’t stop the cable networks – nor the pay networks or the streaming services – from doing their own thing, however, so it’s conceivable that there could be somewhere around 100-150 pilots out there, of which potentially just 20-40 make the cut.

In 2013, there were a grand total of 26 new series’ (comedic, dramas and reality) that premiered on the major television networks. Of that number, only seven (including the outstanding The Blacklist and the iffy Brooklyn Nine-Nine) survived to come back the next season. In 2014, the number of premieres stayed almost the same (25) as did the survival rate (8). For 2015, the number has dropped to 17 and, by the end of the year (hell, maybe by the end of October), we’ll probably have a good idea as to how many of those will come back for a second season next fall.

One of those that should have a long shelf life (or the potential is there for it to have one) is the new NBC series Blindspot (Mondays at 10PM Eastern Time). From the start, the show lays down its premise very well – after Times Square is cleared out due to a duffel bag left in the street, an amnesiac woman emerges from said bag completely covered in intricate tattoos on her naked body – in that this Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) is the key to something. That’s where the story gets a bit grey, though, and it serves to pull the viewer into the program while giving out drips of information along the way.

FBI Special Agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), the lead investigator following Jane Doe’s – rescue? capture? recovery? you’re really not sure – apparently has a tie to whoever tattooed Doe as one of the decorations on her back addresses her to him by tattooing his name on her directly. Weller discovers after questioning Doe that she doesn’t have any recollections of who she is, who was the artist behind her tattoos or why she was in the bag in Times Square. As Weller – and the audience – finds out deeper into the program, these aren’t the only mysteries that Jane Doe brings to the table.

In the premiere episode, one of Jane Doe’s tattoos – a few lines of a Chinese dialect hidden behind an ear – are translated by Doe (amazing the FBI agents around her, including Weller) as an address in New York City. Heading to the address with Doe in tow (who is understandably quite interested in figuring out what the hell is going on), the FBI finds that a Chinese national is plotting to blow up the Statue of Liberty. At the same time, we learn a bit more about Doe as, while she is attempting to stop a man from beating his wife in the apartment complex, she shows off hand-to-hand combat moves that would make Jason Bourne proud in taking down two attackers.

The investigation – into both the Chinese national’s plot and Doe herself – continues, where we learn that Doe COULD be a “black ops” agent trained by the Navy Seals. Meanwhile, the FBI team rushes to the Statue of Liberty, where Weller and Doe take the terrorist down as Doe unlocks a part of her memory – her undergoing weapons training with an unknown bearded gentleman – and prevent the attack from taking place.

While we won’t get into the gist of the second episode (a fascinating story about a former military pilot who hacks a drone to carry out attacks on U. S. soil against those who wronged him), you’ll get enough from the first two episodes to see that this is a show that will have some staying power. Overall it is a “grey” story in that the characters all have some faults that they have to work through, the heroes aren’t all wearing white hats and the bad guys aren’t all twirling their mustaches. For Weller, it is the disappearance of a childhood friend that drove him to join the FBI; for other agents on the team, it is in how much they can trust Doe; for Doe herself, it is who she actually is and if she’s actually a force for good or a tool put in place to cause eventual catastrophe.

The only thing that might derail Blindspot is if it becomes an episodic “Terrorist of the Week” show. Sure, we need to know what happened to Jane Doe, but the team doesn’t need to stop a terrorist from destroying the Five Boroughs every week or stop some sort of crime. Through the usage of the tattoos covering Doe (that seems to be the directional after they are translated by the supercomputer built by the scientist working with the team), we’d like to see them give us more information about the characters and have them grow along with our knowledge of Doe. As long as Blindspot can keep me guessing, I am going to be hooked on the show.

The same cannot be said for the new ABC show Quantico (Sundays at 10PM Eastern Time). The open of the program introduces us to first generation Indian-American newbie FBI agent Alex Parrish (superb Indian actress Priyanka Chopra), who is lying amidst the rubble of a massive terrorist attack in New York City (apparently it has become OK again to depict the Big Apple as the target of terrorists, but that’s an argument for another time). After being plucked from the wreckage by fellow agents and New York’s finest, they put her to the task of identifying from her FBI training class the person who is responsible for the attack.

Here is the first problem with Quantico. From the Incident Command Post in New York, we are whisked back to when Parrish heads off to training with the FBI at its namesake headquarters. Along the way, we are quickly introduced to other members of her class:  a gay man, a Muslim woman, a “legacy” whose parents were both FBI agents and, of course, a hunky guy that Parrish meets on the plane to Quantico and has sex with in his car upon hitting the ground in Virginia (Parrish doesn’t believe she’ll ever meet the guy again; she’s slightly surprised when he shows up in her training class).

The problem is the constant “time hopping” back and forth of the program. Just when you’re beginning to get a gist for what is going on in “real time” (the terrorist attack), you’re pulled out of the situation and plopped back to when the major players were at Quantico undergoing training. While there are moments that push along the plotline (SPOILER ALERT:  a suicide in the premiere episode, driven by an exercise in investigation, brings out plenty of information), the overall feeling of the “school days” of the FBI agent-wannabes is that’s where the writers and producers want to push the “sexy” side of the story, with more emphasis on individuals hooking up than their coursework. Instead of concentrating on one side or the other, you’re never really sure what is supposed to be the main story that is being told by the writers.

By the end of the first episode, it is pretty easy to deduce what is going to happen. Parrish, as she is shocked to learn, is believed to be responsible for the terrorist act and is taken away in cuffs and leg irons on the order of one of her FBI instructors Liam O’Connor (Josh Hopkins). While they are driving away from the scene of the crime, the driver whips out a stun gun and zaps the guard sitting beside the driver and busts Parrish out; the driver is Parrish’s Quantico class director Agent Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis), who informs Parrish she is being framed for the terrorist attack and has to find out who actually did it (it is still a member of her graduating class from Quantico) and who is setting her up to take the fall.

The major problem that I have with Quantico is that I normally don’t like when my television programming is 50/50. You’ve got to be able to pull me in with a solid story and a raison d’etre before you start pushing different storyline arcs at me. In the case of this program, the writers have admitted they wanted to do a soap opera-style Die Hard; for me, that’s a no-go. I’d rather have the action than the bed-hopping, backstabbing and other “intrigue” that shows up in the soap opera genre. Put this together with the “time hopping” and I have to admit that Quantico is either something I’ll watch in passing or won’t bother tuning into again.

It’s Time for the VMAs, But Who Really Cares?

On Sunday evening, something that used to be a “calendar” event in the music industry will take to the Microsoft Theater (formerly the Nokia Theater) stage in Los Angeles, CA. For the 32nd consecutive year, the MTV Video Music Awards will take place, honoring the best video work in the recording industry and the performers who have given us their best (?). In reality, however, the MTV “VMAs” and their “Moonman” award have become a gauche award because nobody really cares about them anymore.

When MTV hit the airwaves in 1981 (in fact, on August 1 the station celebrated its 34th anniversary), it was a brazen broadside against the staid, stoic music industry and the radio industry and stations that would “make or break” careers in a heartbeat. The first video aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” seemed like a four-minute manifesto of what was the intent of the new channel. Record companies and their artists for years had put together promotional videos that, for the most part, were only seen by a handful of people at the record companies and in the radio industry. When MTV came along, that suddenly changed.

Bringing together these hundreds of videos (literally…pretty much anything on MTV in the early days was seen quite often due to the lack of material), MTV slowly built an audience and, at the same time, became the place where new artists made their breakthroughs. Such artists as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow, Duran Duran and the Human League were getting their attention not through traditional radio play but from the constant airing of their music videos on MTV. The biggest move by MTV in its early years may have been the exposure it gave to black artists. Eddy Grant, Musical Youth and a young man embarking on a solo career by the name of Michael Jackson (among others) benefitted greatly from the exposure that MTV provided.

It also had a way of destroying careers. The 1981 Grammy Awards were dominated by a Texas newcomer named Christopher Cross, who earned the top four awards (Record of the Year for his eponymous LP, Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Sailing” and Best New Artist) and seemed poised for a long career in the music industry. Due to his pedestrian features and roly-poly physique, however, Cross wasn’t the typical “MTV artist” and he quickly disappeared from the scene following his sweep.

A couple of years into their existence, however, the honchos at MTV were faced with with the dilemma of continuing to grow the channel and coming up blank. In 1984, the powers that be at MTV came up with what they thought would be the cure (no, not the band). Producing their first ever MTV Video Music Awards, the channel looked to give the same gravitas to music videos that the Grammys bestow on music or the Oscars give to cinema. Over the years, the show has provided MTV with some of its most outlandish moments while also being its most watched event.

Who doesn’t remember Madonna’s rendition of “Like a Virgin” at the very first VMAs? Or Madonna’s girl-girl smooch with the randy Britney Spears in 2003? How about Kanye West barging in on Taylor Swift’s “Moonman” acceptance speech in 2009 (one of the few times I actually felt sorry for Swift)? The clothes, the music and sometimes even the videos made the MTV Video Music Awards a spectacle for the youth of the era. Over the past few years, though, the futility of the VMAs has been mentioned and whether it is the iconic “happening” that it was in its earlier incarnation.

Part of the reason for that is in the maturation of MTV itself. About 15 years ago, MTV decided that it wanted to be more of a lifestyle channel for the young and hip rather than concentrate on music alone. To achieve this goal, MTV began to put on its airwaves things that weren’t the “traditional” fare for the channel. A host of reality and game shows were the start, followed by fashion and “home” shows (anyone remember “Cribs”?).

The reality trend that took over in the 21st century allowed MTV to pretty much switch over to just the reality shows, including the vapid Jersey Shore and other scripted programming (none worth mentioning). Lost in the mix? Music videos, the thing that borne the channel (part of that was in the fact that the record companies, looking to tap another potential revenue stream, wanted to start charging MTV for showing the previously “promotional” videos). Hence, here you have a channel which was formerly the “groundbreaking” arena for exposing new artists through their music videos – in fact, naming their station AFTER MUSIC TELEVISION – not even showing them anymore.

Videos themselves also seem to have disappeared for the most part. Back in 1982, Duran Duran released Rio, their second album. Using the new MTV format, the group was sent by their record company, EMI, to Sri Lanka and Antigua to film an unheard of 11 videos for the record. Those videos not only served to be a major part of the programming for MTV in its early years, it also established Duran Duran as megastars in the music industry and provided the group with a career that still exists today.

Today, videos are seldom done and, if they are, it isn’t for promotional purposes. More often than not, they are done by popular artists that have no need to garner additional airplay for their efforts (think of why Swift, who has somehow crafted a career in music, continues to put out videos that no one has ever seen) or as a “vanity project.” There isn’t a purpose anymore for the music video because there isn’t an outlet for it to air on (sorry, YouTube doesn’t count).

Which brings us back to this year’s VMAs. Of the nominees that are on the list, I’ve seen exactly two of the videos – Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk” (outstanding song, great video and it probably won’t win shit on Sunday) and Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” (a band I can’t get enough of that also won’t sniff a “Moonman”). The rest could be cartoons for all I know because there isn’t an outlet to show them anymore. The untalented Swift is nominated for nine awards while Ed Sheeran has six, with a smattering between Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce and the “Video Vanguard Award” (think Lifetime Achievement Award) being handed to West.  Without an outlet, however, why hand out awards for something that will basically become a popularity contest?

Imagine, if you will, Hollywood continuing to crank out movies and television shows but every theater on Earth not showing them and no television networks to put the shows on? (This one could become reality with the advent of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu starting to film their own projects.) Would there still be a slew of awards shows for basically something that doesn’t exist anymore?

As a former DJ and music aficionado, I used to sit with bated breath each year for the VMAs (and the Grammys, for that matter), not only to know who won what but for the outstanding musical performances that it brought to its stage (never enough rock, always too much pop). Nowadays the videos are all things that I haven’t seen and the “musicians” (and that term is a stretch in many cases) and their music are so over-produced they cannot perform their music live. Thus, you have to wonder if anyone even cares about the MTV VMAs anymore.

Sure, there will be some prepubescent teenagers who will watch as Miley Cyrus, this year’s host, tries to show how “adult” she is through some pseudo-sexual act she’ll perform onstage; Swift will still constantly look like a deer in headlights as she facetiously mouths “Me? Me?” after winning her umpteenth award and there will probably be some spat – usually between warring rap parties – that blows up backstage into a story. It’s time for MTV’s Video Music Awards for 2015, but does anybody really care anymore?