Monday, May 29, 2006

Banff World Television Festival

So this was the happy news I alluded to way back when - I'll be covering the Banff World Television Festival for Blogcritics in June. For this series, just to honour the media accreditation rules to a T, anything I write based on actually attending the festival I'm not going to cross-post here, but I will post links.

Starting with the overview post below, I'll be writing articles leading up to the festival, at the festival, and afterwards, as I try to make the most of my time there and take advantage of the fact that I can write pretty much what I want at Blogcritics - screw reader saturation. Besides covering the festival itself, I'll be doing a pre-festival interview soon with one of the Master Class presenters (no, not that one, House fans), and I'll try to write some post-festival analysis articles on trends and innovations in the industry and how they affect creators and consumers (yeah, that's a direct quote from my accreditation request).

I'm excited at how much fuel for material this should provide a TV and behind-the-scenes geek like me. Oh, I'll try to make it interesting for you, too.

Banff World Television Festival Gathers Industry Insiders

This year's lineup at the Banff World Television Festival includes gala events and famous names like Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby). But the focus, as always, is on connecting decision makers and content producers while exploring issues and trends in the television industry. The festival, now entering its 27th year, runs from June 11 to 14, 2006.

“It's always been a great experience,” said Michael Ghent, Western Production Executive for CanWest MediaWorks Inc., who will be attending for the fourth time. “It's a gathering of the top broadcasters and producers in Canada, and a lot of important international players attend. I'm looking forward to the opportunities for networking and socializing.”

Ghent's mission is to share his needs for documentary, lifestyle, magazine and factual content for the various networks under the CanWest umbrella, including Global, PRIME, CH, MenTV and Mystery. He'll participate in some Face-to-Face sessions, where he'll hear pitches for new content, and will act as a member of the jury for the Pitch It Lifestyle & Reality competition, which offers financial support to winning projects.

“It's the top TV-related event in Canada, and one of the more important ones in the world,” he said of the festival. “As a Vancouverite, it's almost local for me, so it's great to have such a prestigious event in my backyard.”

Andrea Stevens is a television drama and feature film writer who divides her time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, with credits on First Wave, So Weird, Charmed and Clubhouse. She'll be attending as part of the CTV Fellowship program, and hopes to find some creative and financial partners to help develop one of her ideas for a new series.

“When you talk about the Banff festival to anyone who's ever been there, one word always comes up: networking,” Stevens said. “I've been in the U.S. a long time, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to develop some professional relationships with Canadian producers, broadcasters and development executives.”

She'll be taking advantage of the face-to-face sessions, and added “I'm also very impressed with the lineup of Master Class speakers.”

Those Master Classes are led by the producers behind some successful and challenging shows, such as Richard Lewis of CSI, David Shore of House, Paul Scheuring of Prison Break, Ali LeRoi of Everybody Hates Chris, and Scott Peters of The 4400. The In Conversation With... series will feature Haggis, whose new television show The Black Donnellys is coming to NBC next season.

Various panels will highlight new media trends and technological innovations in the industry. Social responsibility, product placement, and the future of Canadian television are among other issues to be explored.

A mainstay of the festival are the Banff World Television Awards – formerly, and more catchily, known as the Rockie Awards. The international mix of nominees makes for some odd bedfellows, including The Rick Mercer Report (Canada's answer to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show) competing against Desperate Housewives and the British geek sitcom The IT Crowd in the comedy category.

But at the Banff World Television Festival, it's not just about who wins and loses, it's about who shows up. “It's good to see the festival seems to be having a renaissance,” said CanWest's Ghent, who has seen the event suffer through some leaner years. “This year, a lot of important people are attending.”

For more information on the Banff World Television Festival, visit

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Invisible Networks

I am a bad, bad Canadian. I'd be clutching my passport as I type this, ready to defend it, except my sin is far from unusual: I very rarely watch Canadian TV.

Sure, there's the news, though I tend to go online for most of my news-gathering needs beyond what I'm force-fed at work. The only Canadian show I regularly watched last season was The Rick Mercer Report, when I could remember it was no longer The Monday Report and aired on Tuesdays. Now that the regular TV season is over, I'm catching up on the first season of Slings and Arrows, after not having access to the channel it originally airs on. Other than that, I don't just not watch Canadian shows, I don't register the existence of many of them.

I meant to watch a new series premiering on The Comedy Network this past Friday, called Alice, I Think. I forgot. I even forgot the title of it and what network it was airing on until an Internet search a few minutes ago. The only reason I'd heard about it was from a newspaper article on Friday morning, which wasn't enough to stick in my brain by the time Friday evening rolled around.

It's not my last chance. According to that article from the Canadian Press:
The series was announced last year as part of CTV's 2005-2006 program lineup. But [creator and head writer Susin] Nielsen denies it's being dumped on the Comedy Network over the summer instead, explaining that it will also air on the main network this fall as part of an interesting new strategy.

"So that when CTV launches us in the fall - this is my understanding - we'll have already generated buzz which will hopefully help us against all of the American shows."

And there's the crux of the matter. All those American shows competing for my attention are a big part of the reason I don't watch Canadian TV.

Among my friends and colleagues, no one talks about Canadian series. There's watercooler conversation about Survivor, Prison Break, Grey's Anatomy, but not Corner Gas or ReGenesis. That doesn't mean no one watches Canadian shows. A friend of mine used to rave about Trailer Park Boys, until I tried and failed to like it and he gave up on me. But I don't often hear casual conversation about it.

If I don't regularly watch the Canadian channel, which is the case for The Comedy Network and even the poor old CBC, I don't see promos for their shows. Tiny promotional budgets for Canadian series means there are few other ways to catch ads for new shows. One article in a newspaper can't compete with the absolute saturation I get about American television simply by browsing my favourite entertainment websites, seeing magazine covers while standing in line at the grocery store, or even reading my local newspaper, who cater to a readership that care far more about the fading The O.C. than the newer, Canadian Falcon Beach.

I didn't watch American Idol at all this year, but I can name the last three contenders just from seeing headlines. I've never watched Lost, but I can tell you who has died on the show, and which characters are romantically linked. The little I know about new Canadian series tends to come from casual mentions on the blog of a Canadian TV writer whose objective is not actually to promote the existence of new Canadian series.

Even actively looking for more information, I have yet to find a good, comprehensive website that does for Canadian television what sites like TV Tattle or the American TV Guide do for American television. Canadian entertainment shows like eTalk Daily and Entertainment Tonight Canada are just as painful to watch and as content-light as their American counterparts, and their websites are filled with gossip on Brangelina and Jessica Simpson rather than Rick Mercer or Alice, I Think star Carly McKillip (not that that's a bad thing, especially for Mercer and McKillip).

I have no desire to watch Canadian television simply because it's Canadian. The government has its Canadian content rules; I don't. But it's sad that the shows fly so far under my consciousness that they don't have a chance to even become part of the lineup of shows to languish in my PVR. Unfortunately I have no solution, just a desire for some brave person to launch a comprehensive, non-gossipy website devoted to Canadian television - or a not-necessarily-brave one to point me to the well-hidden existing one.

Audiobook Review: The Hidden Messages in Water by Masaru Emoto

Masaru Emoto's The Hidden Messages in Water posits the theory that water exposed to positive thoughts and words forms beautiful crystals, while exposure to negative thoughts forms distorted and ugly crystals. If you can hear that premise without rolling your eyes, you're more the audience for this attempt at new age inspiration than I am. Listening to this audiobook, my eyes were in dagger of rolling out of my head - unpleasant at the best of times, but dangerous when I was listening while driving.

I'm baffled at how some people can be skeptical about science and the scientific method, yet not at all skeptical about the unproven and often unprovable theories of pseudoscientific research such as Emoto's. He is careful to outline his experiments in scientific terms - even bringing a hazy understanding of quantum physics into it - while skirting any description that would allow for duplication of his findings or any confidence that other variables contributed to them.

The basic method of his experiments was to direct words, either written or spoken, to a sample of water, freeze it, then take high-speed photographs of the resulting crystals. He finds that "love" and "gratitude" form perfect crystals, while defective crystals are formed on exposure to phrases such as "you fool" and "just do it" (Nike might be surprised to have that classified as a negative). Ignoring crystals altogether was also bad. From this, he takes the fairly admirable view that we should use these same principals to guide how we treat people, though I don't think it's necessary to consider that people are made up largely of water for us to want to treat others with love and gratitude more than insults.

He also played various types of music for the water, finding that classical music resulted in beautiful crystals, and heavy metal created ugly ones. Guess what kind of music Emoto prefers?

The Hidden Messages in Water is one of a few such books by Masaru Emoto which were initially self-published in his native Japan, never peer-reviewed in academic journals, and gained some popularity from exposure in the movie What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?. He ignores double-blind procedures that might reduce the skepticism that the photographer could simply choose a crystal that best demonstrates the result he expects to find. His claims are the subject of one of the James Randi Educational Foundation's million-dollar challenges - that skeptics' organization has an as-yet-unaccepted standing offer to pay him $1 million if he can demonstrate his findings using scientific methods.

Emoto's sloppy pseudoscience shines throughout the book, most amusingly when he asserts that he believes there are 108 elements in the periodic table, because that corresponds to the number of earthly human desires described in Buddhism. Scientists currently claim the existence of 116 elements, 94 of them naturally occurring on Earth, but Emoto, a businessman who obtained certification as a doctor of alternative medicine, doesn't often let facts get in his way.

"Many of the photos are quite nice," says retired chemist Stephen Lower on his website, "but the shapes of ice crystals are highly dependent on the conditions and rates of freezing, so Emoto's fanciful interpretations have no scientific validity."

The crystal pictures that accompany the audiobook are undeniably beautiful (even some of the ones he describes negatively), but his descriptions of them range from highly subjective interpretations to downright incorrect facts. After claiming that major cities' water supplies don't form proper crystals, he cites my city of Vancouver as an exception. "The water from Vancouver produced relatively complete crystals, perhaps because of the bountiful supply of water in the Rocky Mountains," reads the description following a lovely crystal picture. If Vancouver didn't lie 500 miles away from the Rocky Mountains, he might have more luck sounding credible.

Most damning to Emoto's credibility, he talks about the healing properties of water - particularly the special healing water he sells on his website, of course.

There is a positive, important message in The Hidden Messages in Water which is nearly buried under the ridiculous claims of water's alien origins and supernatural powers. Emoto's point is that since humans are composed of water, and depend on the Earth's water supply for life, we must value that source of life more than we currently do. His anti-pollution, pro-conservation stand is laudable, even if his fanciful theories aren't.

The Hidden Messages in Water is available unabridged on three compact discs, including an enhanced CD with 65 pages of water crystal pictures. For more information, visit Simon and Schuster's audiobook website, SimonSays, where you can also hear a clip and listen to a podcast about the book.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Almost an Oscar

It's been a lucky month for me. This morning I went to a volunteer orientation for that international conference I talked about before. They gave all 40 or so of us tickets for door prizes, then got three random people, including me, to draw for the winners. I drew my own number. I offered to draw again, but since the prize was a logoed umbrella, no one wanted to fight me for it.

Afterwards was the volunteer recognition event for my provincial chapter of that organization, whose website I edit. When I went to register and pick up my name tag, there was a yellow ribbon hanging off it saying "nominee" (FYI: "look at me!" is not the best way to recognize someone who hates being the centre of attention). I thought it was one of their silly icebreaker games, but no, I was nominated for a President's Award for Outstanding New Volunteer, and I ended up with the trophy (and surprisingly, there was an actual trophy). Which is very nice, but I feel like I sort of guilted them into it by throwing a hissyfit at the beginning of the season when I realized what their expectations were of the volunteer web editor and outlining why they were dreaming. All season I think they've been treating me with kid gloves in case I up and quit on them. Because no one else wanted the job, not because I was so fabulous.

Earlier this month, in a sweet and unexpected gesture, my employer gave me an award for a project I implemented last year to consolidate the gazillion and one all-staff e-mails that get sent out daily. It's a twice-a-week compilation with a clickable table of contents people can skim and only read the e-mails that interest them. It's a simple idea, one I stole from a seminar I attended, but it helped a bit to reduce the staggering e-mail overload in our 22,000-employee organization. After I ironically got flooded with grateful e-mails when I launched the e-news, I almost felt that if I never did another thing at work, I could pretty much rest on the success of that one idea. Not that I want to test that theory, of course. In a not-so-sweet but entirely expected gesture, because I'm also the newsletter editor, my boss asked me to write the little blurb for our employee kudos page congratulating myself for the recognition. I refrained from too much gushing.

Anyway, I think I should start cutting out the middle man and creating my own self-congratulatory awards. I wonder if the Oscars lose their shine a bit after all the lobbying that goes on? At least Reese Witherspoon didn't have to write her own press release. I think.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

TV Review: House Season Finale - "No Reason"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired May 23.)

I have no use for Emmy predictions. Voters for any awards are an unpredictable bunch, and I hate to be wrong. More importantly, and slightly less egocentrically, I don't watch enough of the likely candidates to have an informed opinion. So I wasn't trying to make a prediction back when I wrote about "Autopsy" and kept referring to the Emmys. But as the season comes to an end and the nominations approach, if I were to make predictions, I'd put money on that episode by Lawrence Kaplow as the show's best bet for another writing nod. (Hello Canada Revenue Agency. I'm speaking metaphorically. No actual bets were placed in the writing of this review.) Now, 22 fine episodes later, there's an additional contender for my wager. That is, if I made predictions. Or bets.

"No Reason" was written by last year's winner for best dramatic writing, House's creator and executive producer David Shore, who also earns his first-ever directing credit with the episode. But the information I mentioned last week was incomplete. I hadn't realized that both Mr. "Three Stories" and Mr. "Autopsy" participated in "No Reason" - Shore gets credit for story and teleplay, while Kaplow is named for story. Greedy.

Though it doesn't touch the brilliance of "Three Stories" - but then I've never been under the illusion that I'll be that amazed by an episode of any show for a long, long time - this episode bends the House rules in similar ways to that Emmy-winning one. "No Reason" breaks free of the show's normal formula while still staying true to the concept, mines previously explored themes in unexpected new ways, and reveals shades to House's character that arise naturally from what we already know but are surprising all the same. It depends on an unreliable narrator. And it puts House in a hospital gown again.

Just a couple of weeks after we saw Foreman as a patient, we get House as one. Unlike Foreman, he's not in need of his team's diagnostic services, since even I could pinpoint his condition: he was shot. The bullets were my first clue.

Elias Koteas, whose credits include appearances in many of Canadian director Atom Egoyan's fascinatingly disturbing films, plays the fascinatingly disturbing Jack Moriarty, a disgruntled ex-patient who shoots House ("Shocking, isn't it? Who'd want to hurt you?"). The name is another Sherlock Holmes reference for our medical detective, but was it mentioned in the episode, or just the press release?

Now here's where I bury my disclaimer: there's no way I can do justice to the ideas in this episode in these instant-reaction reviews I do. This is a very talky episode, full of ideas, not actions (except exploding eyeballs and scrota, but I'll get to that), and those ideas could fill a very, very writey review. At some point, I do have to go to bed tonight.

Before the shooting, we see House admitting he's an ass after doing the most thorough patient history ever on a man with a grotesquely swollen tongue, because he found it amusing to watch him try to talk. The expression on poor Vince's face when House asks him what dessert topping he prefers is a perfect blend of despair and exasperation. "You never know what fact may prove the key to saving your life," House says coyly. Mitigating his assiness, that's actually true on this show. It could one day be some obscure detail about Cool Whip that will crack the case.

After the shooting ... well, there's also no way I can write in any semblance of chronological order and still have it make sense anywhere outside of my own mind. So I have to reveal this now, though the episode waits until the very end: everything after the shooting occurs in House's mind.

We get clues that that's the case along the way. Some are actual clues and some might just be me looking for strict medical accuracy where none was intended (and since I'm not strictly a medical expert, my judge of accuracy is suspect at best). Despite the clues, since we know that House is hallucinating at least part of the time, the fact that nearly the entire episode is a hallucination was not a foregone conclusion, though not a shock, either.

A possible clue that the episode is not what it seems is that after his surgery to repair the bullet damage, House's leg no longer hurts and he can walk with ease, despite the fact that he's supposed to have lost much of his thigh muscle, so I presume pain isn't the only thing making him limp. Plus, he's both weak and confused in an ICU bed and wandering around the hospital, running up and down stairs, going for fish tacos at a roadside stand, and generally confusing me with just how ill he's supposed to be, anyway. A severed jugular? Seems that would have you leaning more towards the ICU bed or the morgue than the fish tacos.

The absence of pain is explained when he analyses his operative notes and discovers that Cuddy authorized a procedure using ketamine that has been used experimentally to "reboot" chronic pain sufferers. House's angry reaction is a poignant reminder of the last time he was treated against his will, in "Three Stories." This time, he fears he's traded his intellect for the mobility he lost last time.

An actual clue that the episode is playing with reality is that more than usual, Wilson and the diagnostic team act as fairly obvious extensions of House's will and thoughts. Most amusingly and literally, Wilson and Chase perform some of House's physiotherapy for him. Most tellingly, Cameron, Foreman, and Chase understand and agree with his every convoluted metaphor, his every far-fetched diagnosis ("You're always insane and you're always right," Foreman points out when confronted at the end. "I'm almost always eventually right. You have no way of knowing when eventually is," House counters.) House tries to work on Vince's case while recuperating, but finds that he suffers from blackouts and hallucinations and makes errors in basic anatomy and medicine, and must trust his team to stop him from making any fatal mistakes.

If there was any doubt, House obviously enjoys the sexual tension between himself and Cameron. Before knowing that everything but the framing scenes occur only in House's head, Cameron comes across as she often does - the woman with the sweet but ill-advised crush on her acerbic boss, who flirts with her while mocking her. But with the reveal, that's flipped on its head. In House's hallucinations - or, I suppose I should say now, subconscious - he imagines Cameron sitting by his bedside for two days while he's unconscious, trying to force him to take care of himself, proving her complete trust in him, all with erotic-lite overtones (hey, it's not cable).

She proves her trust by acting as the guinea pig in his experiment to show Vince that his best chance at a successful surgery is a robot. To introduce another animal-related cliche, Vince is a red herring, and my brain will explode as surely as his eye and scrotum did if I try to write out all the twists and turns of his case. I swear it's a testimony to how much I love this show that I didn't stop watching when his eye popped out of the socket, though. I have a thing about eyes. So does this show, unfortunately.

While I (mostly) never make Emmy predications, I do know that Hugh Laurie will win one at some point. This episode is further proof of why that's not a prediction, but a fact. (You might be thinking it's opinion, not fact, but work with me here.) He handles this talky episode beautifully, where House is as nasty, miserable, witty, and charming as usual, while also questioning who he is and what matters to him. He is as off-balance as the audience, both asking the same question - what's going on here? - and House is most compelling when his doubt and despair are allowed to creep through the hostility and facile jokes. Koteas is his equal here, too, with both men reciting paragraphs of beautiful writing without making it seem like words on a page - they're words from deep within the character of House.

What is House, stripped of his reason and intelligence? He's this floundering man we see in "No Reason" who still clings to logic to explain the illogical. Our biggest clue to the episode is Moriarty, who at first subtly, then more obviously, is not only part of House's hallucinations, but part of his conscience.

He brings up the philosophical questions this show has raised since the beginning, and tears down some of the certainties that House lives by. Moriarty's reason - unreasonable though it may be - for shooting House was revenge. House had treated Moriarty's wife, and using his usual investigative method of probing for every detail, convinced the man to confess to an affair. House cured the wife, exposed the husband, and is now told that she committed suicide.

Moriarty blames House, whose truth in this case was as deadly a weapon as a gun. We've seen before, in episodes like Failure to Communicate and Skin Deep, that the information House uncovers about his patients, the caustic words he uses to them, can have damaging consequences. That realization might have nagged at the audience, but it rarely seems to bother House. Here, he's forced to accept the consequences of his actions and examine his philosophy of considering only the biological and intellectual at the expense of the emotional.

Moriarty gives a speech that cuts to the very core of this character and expresses House's own doubts about his own worldview:
You pretend to buck the system. Pretend to be a rebel. Claim to hate rules. But all you do is substitute your own rules for society's. And it's a nice simple rule: tell the blunt, honest trust in the starkest, darkest way, and what will be will be. What will be should be. And everyone else is a coward. But you're wrong. It's not cowardly to not call someone an idiot. People aren't tactful or polite just because it's nice. They do it because they've got an ounce of humility. Because they know that they will make mistakes, and they know that their actions have consequences, and they know that those consequences are their fault. Why do you want so bad not to be human, House?
House says the things I might think I want to say, but never would, and could never forgive myself if I did. And I love him for it because it's liberating to hear those thoughts vocalized, without risk to any feelings but fictional ones. But I also love the show for exposing that they are not wrapping his philosophy up in a flag, or at least they are showing the crumbs on that flag.

In a scene where all participants and viewers know that House is puzzling out his thoughts in the guise of puzzling them out with Moriarty, this meaty philosophical morsel is thrown out as fact, at least in House's mind:
Moriarty: Information is incapable of harm in and of itself. Ideas are neither good nor bad. They are only as useful as what we do with them. Only actions can cause harm.
House: That sounds like me.
But if that's true, then would House be even partially responsible for Moriarty's wife's suicide? Then why does House apologize to Moriarty?
Moriarty: You don't care if you live or die?
House: I care because I live. I can't care if I'm dead.
Moriarty: I don't want to hear semantics.
House: You anti-semantic bastard.
OK, that quote doesn't get to the part that makes my point, but it just might be my favourite punchline in the show's two-season history so I had to throw it in. Here's the point that forces House to examine the choice he's made to discount emotion over reason, expressed after the scene where House tries to determine what's real, literally:
Moriarty: You think that the only truth that matters is the truth that can be measured. Good intentions don't count. What's in your heart doesn't count. Caring doesn't count. A man's life can't be measured by how many tears are shed when he dies. Just because you can't measure them, just because you don't want to measure them, doesn't mean it's not real. And even if I'm wrong, you're still miserable. Did you really think that your life's purpose was to sacrifice yourself and get nothing in return? No. You believe there's no purpose to anything. Even the lives you save, you dismiss. You turn the one decent thing in your life and you taint it, you strip it of all meaning. You're miserable for nothing. I don't know why you'd want to live.
It's too bad House's season finale came after that other medical show I watch that had a shooting in its finale. And that other other medical show I used to watch that also had a shooting in its finale. (Hey, Scrubs, where was your shooting? I suppose creator Bill Lawrence did warn me he was focused on babies, not bullets.)

I'm not saying there was a meeting of medical dramas to decide how their genre should end the season, but in addition to all the other non-medical shows with shootings in their finales, it's a sad indication of the perceived need to ramp up the drama during sweeps, and that the options appear so limited.

None of that should matter much when judging the episode on its own merits, and it didn't detract from the viewing experience, just the writing-about-the-viewing-experience a little. Yet the coincidence also demonstrates one of House's strengths - even a storyline that suggests a ratings stunt arises believably from the premise of the show, with an appropriate TV level suspension of disbelief, of course. House was no victim of a random shooting. We expect the man to engender rage in ex-patients (and current patients, and coworkers, and friends, and random passersby, and ...), so it's almost surprising he hasn't been shot before.

It can be a slippery slope. That kind of dramatic escalation is hard to sustain without getting into helicopters and tanks crashing into the hospital. It could also devalue one of the most important strengths of the show - its reliance on the lure of intelligent explorations of character and theme, rather than frenzied plot. However - and it's a big however - the shooting is a setup for that very type of exploration, so any complaint I have about another shooting is minor, and one more centred on a dislike of continually ramped-up plots than on this single episode.

"No Reason" breaks another House convention by ending on a cliffhanger. When House realizes his entire experience is a hallucination, he forces himself to push it beyond reason in order to return himself to reality. He takes control of the robot that is operating on Vince, gutting him like a herring of any colour, while his team looks on in horror. When after a very long moment, a bullet drops from dead Vince's hand, I could breathe a sigh of relief that he was right, and next season wouldn't need to bring Stacy in as a criminal lawyer to defend him on murder charges.

Wilson had explained House's fury at having his leg pain cured by saying House has come to terms with his disability by "dismiss(ing) anything physical, anything not coldly, calculatingly intellectual." So when House comes to in Emergency, asking for ketamine, we're left hanging as to what it all means. Presumably he's always been aware there was an experimental treatment for his pain, and he needed this opportunity to use the drug. Presumably, he's decided to wager his intellect against the use of his leg, after screaming to Cuddy and Wilson: "What do I have? I have my brain. That's it. I can make people better. And you two decided to trade that for jogging shoes." Presumably, after his Moriarty-defined epiphany, he has realized that his "one thing," his medical brilliance, is not worth the sacrifices he has made, physically or emotionally.

I hate cliffhangers. Really hate them. I'm a loyal commitmentphobe. If I love a show - the kind of love that transcends simply enjoying entertaining fluff, like that other medical show - I must watch every week. But I can't love a show that requires me to watch every week. Even with season-ending cliffhangers, it's not that I'm too impatient to wait to find out what happens next, but I want writers to trust me to tune in next year because I like the show, not because I desperately need a resolution I know is doomed to disappoint after I've mulled it over for months.

Sadly, TV writers do not cater solely to me and my delicate sensibilities. Happily, the House writers usually satisfy them anyway. And this cliffhanger is more intriguing than shocking. Will House die? Only if the show is going to mimic Prison Break and be forced to choose between changing its name or having an irrelevant title (I'm going to lobby for Cuddy, M.D.). Will he lose his intellect? Only if FOX has decided the recent 20+ million viewers isn't enough and they need to dumb down the show. But ... will he be a different House next year, one free of leg pain, free of the cane, burdened with the knowledge that what he says matters? I'm doubtful it will be that simple, and trusting that whatever the resolution is, it will not solve anything without raising other problems.

Despite all my Emmy talk here, I don't need nominations to validate my own opinion that House is consistently terrific. I'm just grateful to have had such a thoughtful, entertaining, well-crafted show to merrily pick apart all season.

The next new episode airs ... not for a long, long time. But FOX is keeping it on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. starting in in the fall, pre-baseball chaos, and will replay the entire second season over the summer in back-to-back Tuesday episodes.

Oh, and Emmy nominations come out July 6, with the awards announced August 27. Not that I'm placing any bets.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Savvy Networks Engage TV Fans Online

If community websites like Television Without Pity (TWoP) were a cross-section of the average TV audience, UPN's Veronica Mars would be a top-rated show and CBS's CSI would be languishing in the Nielsen ratings. Instead, Veronica Mars brings in fewer than 3 million viewers a week, and was renewed by the skin of its teeth on the new CW network. Still, higher-rated shows such as Everwood didn't make the transition.

If the availability of interactive online extras were a sign of popularity, NBC's struggling Scrubs would be a mammoth hit and FOX's surging House would be suffering at the hands of its network. Still, Scrubs is heading into its sixth season thanks to what they loving call their Internet "nerds."

"Luckily our fans are so loyal, that same core group has followed us from timeslot to timeslot and from evening to evening and really helped to keep the show going," said creator Bill Lawrence, who believes that's the recipe for survival for shows that aren't lucky enough to capture a giant audience at the outset.

There are other forces at work, including economics, scheduling, critical acclaim, and demographics. But Internet-organized fans are the vocal cult in "cult hit," who resurrected Family Guy and kept buzz-worthy Arrested Development on the air for longer than the ratings would suggest.

It's a basic tenet of marketing that you don't try to snare everyone in your publicity -- you study the people who area already using your product and target more of the same. If your clients are, on average, one-eyed men with college educations, you look for ways to advertise to other one-eyed men, other men with college educations. Using principles of customer engagement to create a passionate fanbase, if your audience congregates on the Internet, you join them there.

So what do smart insiders like Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas do? He posts occasionally on TWoP, making that the place the cool kids hang out, the show the cool kids watch. Scrubs' Lawrence and his cast and crew come up with innovative Internet strategies to please their online fans. And at the recent upfront presentations, where advertisers get their first look at networks' fall schedules, NBC's TV chief Jeff Zucker has mandated that all his network's shows must have an interactive component.

With television losing viewers to the web and gaming worlds, networks are scrambling to put their content online, on iPods, on cell phones. NBC and their competitors have already begun to embrace the multi-platform world they've found themselves in. NBC's The Office, among other shows, saw its ratings rise after its availability on iTunes, and will take advantage of that fact by airing online-only "webisodes" this summer. CBS recently launched a broadband channel that will replay network shows and offer original content. ABC implemented blogs and streaming of some of its programs this past season, and its show Lost has employed perhaps the most aggressive strategy, creating an off-network world that treats dedicated viewers to clue-rich websites and, next year, even a video game.

But Zucker's announcement, which also mentioned the creation of several broadband channels, is part of an articulated strategy called Television 360, designed to engage viewers and create more opportunities to sell space to companies who have seen audience fragmentation and TiVo and other technologies reduce the effectiveness of their on-air ads.

From USA Today:
"No broadcaster wants to leave on the table their share of the extra revenue — $270 million this year as estimated by the trade magazine Television Week — that will come from ads on non-traditional platforms packaged into upfront deals."
Another marketing truism is that it is far less expensive to retain current customers than to recruit new ones. The goal of online tie-ins, then, is not just to hook more fans, but to keep the fans you already have hooked. No amount of podcasts, chat rooms, videos, and quizzes is going to create a robust online community for a show that has no Internet buzz to begin with. But smart networks and smart shows have begun to feed nascent or existing communities hungry for that content, and in doing so, to create online ambassadors to spread the word, online and off.

Emotional engagement can keep TV shows riding high even when quality dips. Desperate Housewives' ratings remained strong this year despite slipping in critical and audience buzz. Audiences who are invested in the characters and story can be fiercely reluctant to give up on a show they've already engaged with. Networks are beginning to wake up to the fact that they can create even more investment, apart from that on-air hour a week, by tying it into their audience's online lives and making the computer, the cell phone, the iPod an extension of the TV network.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Once shy, twice bitten ... wait, that's not right

My professional association is having their international conference in Vancouver next month, and I've volunteered to help out, because volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to the community and … oh, who am I kidding? I get to see some sessions for free and add to my resume.

One of my assignments is to introduce the speakers for a session on online marketing. Now that I've researched and written the intro, I'm beginning to remember that I will need to actually say it in front of a room full of hundreds of people, all looking at and listening to me. So all I can focus on now is what the HELL was I thinking?!

But then that's exactly what I was thinking. I'm doing it because the thought of doing it terrifies me … but not as much as it would have years ago, since I keep doing things that terrify me. It's part of my homeopathic treatment against shyness, where doses of what ails me are used to cure me.

I was a scared, timid kid, and I moved a lot, so I have a lot of memories of painfully acute shyness. Adults who were shy as children tend to think of themselves that way long past any outward indications of it. (Then there are the ones who call themselves shy because they don't feel entirely comfortable in every social situation; that's called being human.) Though I'd still insist I'm not only very shy, but come across that way to others, enough people have told me I don't that I suppose I have to admit I'm possibly, finally, one of those adults.

My impression of my own shyness gets muddled by the fact that I am undeniably an introvert, which isn't the same thing, but has some of the same social limitations. We did a Myers Briggs exercise at work, and the facilitator divided us into the introverts versus the extroverts. He then got us to ask questions of each other. Mine was this: "Do extroverts feel pressure to be less extroverted, the way introverts feel pressure to be more extroverted?" My extroverted colleagues said no, but these are people who have chosen a career that has elements of public and media relations, so it's not exactly a random sample. Still, I think it's undeniable that extroversion is valued far more than introversion in our culture.

I do value introversion; I like a lot of alone time. But I don't value shyness. At all. It was a conscious choice in my late teens, to beat it out of myself. Since actual beatings seemed painful and counterproductive, I decided to put myself in situations where I simply couldn't be shy or I couldn't function.

That led to decisions like spending a month in high school living with a family in France; moving to a French area of New Brunswick to teach English in front of a class of skeptical teenagers; choosing that career involving public and media relations; packing my bags for a life in Mexico without knowing anyone and before learning Spanish; requesting interviews with people I was sure would scoff at me; taking on volunteer assignments with public speaking. The bonus has been that these decisions are the ones I look back on as some of the most memorable times of my life. That's memorable in the good way, not in the doomed-to-spend-eternity-thinking-of-past-torments kind of way.

Over 10 years ago, when I was taking an Arts Administration certificate in an attempt to put a practical veneer on my English degree, an obnoxious classmate told me shyness is a form of conceit. The comment still festers in the recesses of my brain. I was offended, I rejected the idea, but those brain recesses keep coming back to it because I keep realizing there's a morsel of truth to it, one I don't want to recognize.

Part of my shyness is - was? - the thought that people analyze every word I say and movement I make with the same scrutiny my critical brain turns on myself. There is definitely something egotistical about that, even if it's the ego of thinking everyone thinks I'm an idiot. Because the truth is, everyone isn't thinking anything at all of me. Part of it's also the thought that failure or rejection would be devastating. It's OK for others, but not for me - yeah, that's not conceited at all.

By forcing myself into situations outside my comfort zone, I have experienced enough failures and foolishness to demonstrate that I won't actually die of shame, and enough moments of realization that other people don't care as much as I do about me. The shyness is still there, every day, but I think I might have come to a place where it isn't really obvious, at least to strangers. I might have succeeded in turning it homeopathic - so diluted there's no detectable quantities of it left.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

TV Review: House - "Who's Your Daddy?"

House is a show mostly trapped in the confines of the hospital set. Sure, we get teasers of patients in their natural habitats, and for a special treat, our core cast might actually have lives outside the workplace. But apart from the odd seizure, CGI, or punch, the action of the show is usually either cerebral or emotional, taking place in the minds, hearts, and mouths of the characters.

"Who's Your Daddy?" is a perfect example of how Hugh Laurie and the producers and directors take the inner workings of House - his thoughts and his pain - and make them kinetic. Forget that damn ball, the white board, or the twirling cane, which are the usual stand-ins for his thought process made visible. This episode it's House himself who is the body in motion.

It opens with the doctor pacing furiously, painfully, in his apartment, face contorted, finally clamoring up a step ladder to his previously unknown secret stash of morphine - only to be stopped by his "one thing," the thing the drugs allow him to do: his job. Cuddy leaves him a message with the prospect of a juicy case, and he regretfully puts the syringe down.

The case is a teenager named Leona, raised by a drug-addicted mother and left homeless and motherless by Hurricane Katrina. Her newly discovered father is House's old ... let's say friend ... Dylan Crandall (D.B. Sweeney, who has the perfect hangdog face for the role), who is the first and, I imagine, last person on the show to call House "G-Man." "I thought I'd met all your friend," Cuddy tells House, hilariously stressing the singular.

The credulous, sad-sack Crandall seems an unlikely companion for House, but he explains it to Wilson: "We were 20 years old. He had a car. If he'd been a woman, I would have married him." He also explains his sense of obligation to the man: House stole his girlfriend. Seems our warped hero not only holds a grudge forever, as with his classmate in "Distractions," but he also honours a debt with equal longevity.

Flying home with Crandall, Leona suffered a hallucination the team believes was caused by a damaged heart muscle, but which wasn't cured when the heart damage was. House, shockingly, thinks his patient is lying to Crandall, who won't let him perform a paternity test to prove her claim. When Wilson expresses surprise that House didn't do it anyway, he replies: "I said I wouldn't." "So either you lied, or he has pictures of you being nice," counters Wilson. He believes House is lying about the paternity test and that the emotional suppression is causing his leg to hurt ... except we know the leg was hurting before the case.

When each diagnosis seems to be a bust, instead of staying static at the white board, the aching House paces in and out of the conference room, striding down the hall to think, popping his head in when he's got an idea or wants to ridicule one of his team's. Or, he circles the nurses' desk as he circles in on his diagnostic epiphany. At least walking is a healthier distraction than inducing migraines.

In order to test the theory that the girl has an autoimmune disease triggered by pain, House gets to test his theory that she's lying by torturing her - one of his favourite reasons to visit a patient. "Diagnostically, she needed to be hurt," he tells his shocked minions. "I wanted to hurt her. It was win-win."

Tying in with House's well-established love of music, Leona's grandfather is a famous musician, Jesse Baker, of whom House once said he'd give up his own right hand to have the other man's left. One of the keys to the case comes when House listens to a recording of Baker performing and then launching into a seemingly drunken diatribe, because House believes he had been playing too well to have been high at the time.
Foreman: "Unless you can tell me Miles Davis couldn't play stoned ..."
House: "Played better when he wasn't. I think. I mean, no one knows for sure."

As with last season's "DNR," from which I poached the "one thing" quote, House's medical ability is here juxtaposed with artistic talent, this time more subtly. Presumably the reason House put down the syringe is that he can't practice medicine as well when he's high, either. At least, not too high. Ingrid the gorgeous masseuse from "Detox" is back to help alleviate some of House's leg pain, and her presence is a reminder of his explanation of his Vicodin dependence in that episode: "They let me do my job. And they take away my pain."

Adding the grandfather's symptoms to Leona's liver failure and hallucinations, they have a diagnosis of hemochromatosis, leading to too much iron, and treat her for that.

Mystified by how their deductions have been correct along the way and yet her lungs are failing, House forces the team to walk through the diagnosis and treatments again. "Is it just me, or have we discovered a flaw in the scientific method?" he grouses. What's missing is, again shockingly, that Leona lied: she hadn't been living in a homeless shelter, but in the recording studio, where she was infected with a fungus that was destroying her lungs.

House's last contact with Leona is to tell her that he ran a paternity test against Crandall's wishes, and that her lie is actually true - he is her father. It's unfortunate Leona didn't have more opportunity to display a personality throughout the episode, since the impact of the nice (or was it?) gesture is lessened a bit by the scene coming between House and the fairly formless girl.

Our last contact with House is to see that he lied, and to see him on his apartment couch staring at the evidence of his lie - the negative paternity test - with an empty syringe next to him. Crandall so badly wanted her to be his daughter that House paid his debt to him with that lie. This from the man who spent the episode telling Cuddy that "genes matter, who you are matters."

Without ever leaving the hospital, we learn something significant about Cuddy's life outside it - she has few people to turn to. In "Who's Your Daddy?" she goes to House for advice in selecting a genetically suitable sperm donor, and he's the one she asks to give her the required twice-a-day injections for in vitro fertilization. She, he, and we also learn how deeply she trusts him, and, perhaps, likes him. He tries to persuade her not to create a designer loser baby, not to go with an anonymous donor based only on genetics rather than personality.
House: You want someone you can trust.
Cuddy: Someone like you?
House: Someone you like.

I'm still ambivalent about the Cuddy-wants-a-baby-possibly-with-House storyline (I'm using the less common "oh dear god, please no" definition of "ambivalent"), but they are just so fun together, and there was even sweetness between them here. And I'm not opposed to House and Cuddy's ongoing flirtation (this would be the "oh please, give us more and let that be the end-game of the show way, way in the future" definition of "not opposed"), particularly when it's manifested in her strategically opening drawers into his, er, lap, and him staring appreciatively at her ass while insulting her.

House's clinic patient this episode is the cutest, giggliest little boy who makes the most adorably random sneeze in the middle of the scene. As with the girl obsessed with finding Nemo/marching the penguin of a couple of episodes ago, all the way back to the early episodes of the first season such as "Maternity," when House says "people don’t bug me until they get teeth," and "The Socratic Method," when House keeps calling the son of a patient a "nice kid," he proves he can be surprisingly good with children. But c'mon Cuddy, remember, those kids grow up to be teenagers like Leona, and adults like, well, you.

Instead of taking my advice about House's paternal potential, toward the end of the episode, Cuddy arrives at his office, scattered and hopeful, to thank him for the IVF injections.
House: You came all the way up here just to tell me that?
Cuddy: No. (She leaves the office)

Hmm. So far, I'm amused and intrigued. But they really can't be going there, can they?

The season finale airs next Tuesday, May 23, at 9 p.m. I hate to raise expectations based solely on the credits, but it was written and directed by Mr. "Three Stories," Emmy-winning creator David Shore, so my own expectations are not unraised.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Spaghetti still cracks me up

I used to believe I'd get wiser as I got older, until I discovered the more I know, the more I realize how much I don't know. Which I guess is a type of wisdom, but it's not the "answers to all life's questions" kind of wisdom I wanted. Oh well, maybe next year.

I used to think I'd get more sophisticated, too, but that hasn't noticeably been the case either, particularly when it comes to my sense of humour. I might understand bigger words, and recognize more references, but I still love the silly and the absurd.

This weekend, I was telling one of my "wasn't I ridiculous" stories — not to be confused with my "aren't I ridiculous" stories, which together comprise most of my anecdotes. I used to think I'd get cooler as I got older, too, but sadly, no. Fortunately my sense of humour has adapted to allow me to laugh at myself and be laughed at without bursting into tears. Mostly.

Anyway, this story was about the joke I invented as a seven year old, which I thought was hilarious, but whose telling always led me to believe everyone I knew was deficient for not fully appreciating it. Here's the "joke":
Q: What food shouldn't you serve if the Queen is coming for dinner?
A: Spaghetti.
I'll wait a moment until you stop laughing. Oh … don't tell me you're deficient, too? See, because spaghetti is messy. And you want to be sophisticated around the Queen.

To give my seven-year-old self credit, it's the kind of joke I still enjoy today. I mean, if it could fairly be called a joke. It requires the listener to fill in a leap in logic, and relies on the absurdity of eating spaghetti with the Queen. I mean, if it were absurd enough to be funny.

Some of my favourite non-self-invented jokes as a child were the elephant jokes, funny precisely because they're decidedly not funny individually (or, some would say, collectively). There are a ton of them, with many variations, but here's a few I remember:
Q: How many elephants can you fit in a Volkswagen Beetle?
A: Four – two in the front, two in the back.

Q: How can you tell there are elephants in your house?
A: By the Volkswagen Beetle parked outside.

Q: How can you fit an elephant in your fridge?
A: Open the door, put the elephant in, close the door.

Q: How can you tell there's an elephant in your fridge?
A: By the footprints in the butter.

Q: How can you tell there's an elephant in your bedroom?
A: By the butter tracks leading up the stairs.

Q: Why do elephants wear blue sneakers?
A: Because the white ones always get dirty.

Q: Why do elephants float on their backs in the water?
A: So their sneakers don’t get wet.

You get the idea. I can't blame my unsophisticated younger self. I still giggle at those. They're just so silly. Plus, when you think about it - when you read the news - an appreciation for the absurd is a pretty good trait to learn young.

Isn't NBC supposed to suck?

It's an overwhelming time in TV land right now, particularly for a TV geek who wishes she could write everything she wants about it and still have time to be a functioning member of society. It's sweeps and season finale month, time for Very Important Episodes That Can't Be Missed. This week is the start of the upfronts, too, when networks present their new fall schedules.

NBC led off the week, and made the only announcement I really care about now that I know Sons and Daughters is officially gone: Scrubs will be back next season (not that I doubted Bill Lawrence when he said it would be on either NBC or ABC, but even he admitted you never know with Hollywood). Mirroring last season's good news/bad news situation, the show got a full-season order, but isn't on the schedule for fall, meaning it will probably fill the midseason slot of a show that tanks.

NBC has probably has the only other announcements I slightly care about, too. I don't tend to get excited about new shows until I start to hear critical buzz about them - network buzz just gives me a headache. But I'm cautiously ecstatic that Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is coming in the fall.

Britomart and I had watched a few episodes from my Sports Night DVDs on the weekend, which built up my anticipation for another Sorkin series even more. I haven't watched The West Wing for the last couple of seasons - I did try to tune in this season, but had no idea what was happening or who it was happening to - but I caught the last half of the series finale and even that made me tear up a little, and long to rewatch my West Wing DVDs ... except who has that kind of time during the TV craziness that is May.

Of the new series, my early curiousity is also sparked by Heroes, which features normal people who become superheroes, and The Black Donnellys, by creators Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (Crash), which doesn't sound like something I'd love, but I've got a bit of a talent crush on Haggis now. His show will take over ER's timeslot in January, in a move that means no reruns for the sagging medical show.

With My Name is Earl and The Office, NBC just might be my network next year (hmm, if I say network/studio, I can count House too). Those are both moving up an hour to start the evening off at 8 p.m.

I'd read The New York Post's article Friday on how Earl has lost 42 percent of its audience since it premiered. That statistic shocked me, since it's also being hailed as the sitcom saviour and NBC's saviour, being the only one of their shows from last year's upfronts to survive for this year's. But then I realized ... some weeks, I'm one of those lost viewers.

I still watch it and still love it. But while there are often nice character moments, with so little character progression, I'm not too worried if I miss it now and then. Its companion, The Office, on the other hand - which I only started watching because it followed Earl and didn't completely spit on the name of the British original - has me hooked, wanting to find out what comes next. It kind of snuck up on me, though. I didn't realize it had surpassed Earl for me until reading that article, just before seeing the finales of both. Weird.

Oh, and NBC is also adding to my anticipation with the announcement that they're creating several new broadband channels, including, which will show old Letterman reruns and The Office, among other things, and channels for each of their main networks, which will preview entire episodes of new shows before they air.

I don't expect to care much about the other upfront news, unless ABC does an about-face and renews Sons & Daughters, or CBS feels benevolent and brings back Love Monkey (I realize neither of those is going to happen, but let me have my illusions for a day or so). But who knows, I might write more later. I bet being a functional member of society is overrated.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Brilliant ideas, not yet cancelled

Things will probably be quiet here for a few days at least. I'm taking tomorrow off to make another long weekend, since my deranged friend Britomart is visiting. She's never been to Vancouver, so of course one of the main things I'll do is drag her to Abbotsford (slogan: "City in the Country") about an hour away, to the wedding shower of a couple she's never met. Either way I'm a bad friend. I'm helping organize the shower (more a sign of my affection for the friend than any shower-organizing zeal), so it would be bad form of me not to show.

But for your reading pleasure, here's a few items about a pet subject of mine: better use of the Internet by TV networks for fan engagement and content delivery - and, from their perspective, more opportunities for ad delivery.
  • From The Futon Critic: Just a week after CBS launched its broadband channel Innertube, Bravo announces the May 23 launch of a broadband channel, taking over the webspace of the Trio channel, which formerly played brilliant but cancelled shows. Shows will include EZ Streets from creator Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), and many other shows I've never heard of but were, apparently, brilliant. And cancelled. The website will be supported with iTunes and DVD releases, as well as episode airings on Bravo - yes, they're calling the broadcasts support for the website, not the other way around. I really hope these new broadband channels affiliated to TV networks pay off, literally. Because it's all very cool, but I'm sure the networks aren't in it for cool.
  • From USA Today: TV ad sales find plenty of new outlets: Cellphones, computers, iPods complicate deals. "For the upcoming fall season, NBC Universal TV head Jeff Zucker has mandated that all new programs have an element to involve fans — through cellphones, computers or iPods." This article gets into those economic motivations behind networks' interest in Internet tie-ins.
  • From Forbes: WB Sails with Tech Pirate. "Warners has signed a deal to sell and rent its movies and TV shows through a content store that BitTorrent will launch this summer. It likely won't be the only major player on board, as BitTorrent has already approached or is in discussions with nearly every major studio and network." Bittorrent may no longer be a dirty word in the industry.
  • Here's one that doesn't involve a network, brought to my attention by Bill Cunningham at DISContent: Iron Sink Media Launches Interactive-Webisodic Romantic Comedy Series: "Soup of the Day". "The interactive-webisodic romantic comedy 'Soup of The Day' will launch in May. The show empowers viewers to become involved with the fictional characters, played by actors from improv troupes such as The Groundlings, in three weekly 5-minute episodes over eight weeks. Through the blogs of each of the characters at, viewers will track the round-the-clock comments on their romantic relationships, as well as the on-air stylings of the sexy host of a new Internet video news program now being broadcast at At the end of its run, 'Soup of The Day' will be re-edited with alternate, unrated scenes into a feature length movie to be released on DVD, with hours of additional bonus features."
I think this last one is the kind of thing that makes networks shiver a little. They were pretty slow to catch on to this whole Internet fad, but they have to be catching on to the fact that the traditional network model is going to feel irrelevant to consumers who not only are getting used to the idea of seeing what they want when they want, they're beginning to find alternate programming like this to take their attention further away from the TV.

OK, that was way more than I intended to write. Gotta go clean the apartment before Brit gets here ...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

TV Review: House - "Forever"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired May 9)

I was in a pretty good mood today. The sun's shining, the mountains are showing off their snow-tipped peaks, birds are singing ... well, maybe I couldn't hear any birds, but the rest is true.

And then I watched House.

Usually, the show makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I'm not quite sure why. It's not because there's much warmness and fuzziness to the show itself. It's not only because it's nice to have proof that intelligent entertainment can get great ratings. There's just something beautiful about House's misanthropy. Something that makes me feel almost philanthropic. It's like I'm a nice Dorian Gray, and House is my picture in the attic, getting meaner instead of older. Or something.

But "Forever" was a downer of an episode for many reasons. The primary reason is that a baby dies. There's also the fact that the mom, Kara, killed him, because she was crazy as a result of undiagnosed celiac disease, which caused polagra, a nutritional deficiency. Only they finally diagnosed and treated her, so she regains her sanity, and the full realization of what she did crushes her spirit and makes her decide not to get treatment for the stomach cancer they also detect. Oh, and her husband blames her, but also himself, because House berates him in a moment that seems heartless on the surface, but is actually hugely compassionate - just not towards the husband. As House points out, he abandoned Kara to her psychosis and left her alone with the baby rather than have to deal with her agony ("you slept while she went nuts").

Yeah, it was an uplifting hour of television.

Which isn't to say I want it to be all happy endings and sunshine. Though House the doctor never fails to solve the mystery, House the show occasionally will kill a patient. It makes for better television; the peril of every medical mystery is more real with the knowledge that the patient might not pull through. But when you go from almost-drowned baby, to baby's OK, to mother smothers baby, to House saves baby, to baby's not doing very well after all, to baby dies ... well, it's hard not to feel manipulated, because there's more emotional weight attached to its very babyness.

Still, it's far braver of the show not to attempt an "everything's going to be OK in time" ending after showing the mother's heartbreak at learning what she'd done, and the father's rage and guilt and half-hearted attempt to forgive. In the time elapsed, it would have been jarring for it to end on a hopeful note after such a momentous death.

House attempts to convince Kara she wasn't responsible for her insanity any more than a diabetic is responsible for not producing enough insulin. But his "you don't deserve to die" is answered with the unanswerable "maybe I don't want to live." His acceptance of that argument is very House-like, and while I think she's going to let herself die, less morbid viewers can imagine Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital has some non-doctor health care professionals trapped in an attic somewhere, from which a social worker or psychologist will emerge and talk to the woman. But the medical story ends where it must in House's world.

Also depressing was Foreman's return after last week's life-threatening illness and life-altering treatment, because our belligerent House-antagonist has gone all Chicken Soup for the Soul on us. The episode-ending cliffhanger revealing his left-right side reversal is dismissed with his announcement that that's all better now, though he suffers from residual effects from the brain biopsy his new friend Cameron had ordered at his request. House, naturally, calls him Scarecrow among other nasty "if you only had a brain" jokes. He also sends him to the patient's home to scout out any possible culprits for Kara's illness, proving House doesn't feel that guilty about sending him to his almost-doom last episode.

The non-battle between House and Foreman is the funniest thing about this not-hysterical episode. House attempts, as usual, to bait Foreman, with no result. He posits his crazy theories and treatment ideas, with no attempts to refute him. He ridicules Foreman's perfectly reasonable theories, all with no complaint from Foreman. And it all drives House crazy, which is pretty funny. "Is almost dying any excuse for not being fun?" he complains to Chase. Cameron - who is usually pretty Chicken Soup for the Soul herself - ends up saying "oh, give it a rest" to nauseatingly nice and passive Foreman.

However, contributing to my sadness is that this episode felt the need to spell out what's been obvious to most of us with more than straw for brains - House likes to get a rise out of people.
Foreman: You're addicted to conflict.
House: (staring at the Vicodin he's about to pop) Did they change the name?

That's one of the funniest moments, and it comes just before the saddest, when we learn House can run when the adrenaline's pumping, can remember a nurse's name when he's really motivated (I think - did he say "crash cart, Debbie, stat"?), and Hugh Laurie can turn on a dime from anguished attempts to resuscitate the baby to snarky remarks at Foreman and be believable at both in the same second.

House diagnoses Foreman with fake contentment, accusing him of compensating for his frustration at his new limitations. "You just wanted all that crap you went through to mean something," he says. Foreman cops to this theory pretty easily, and he ends the episode intently studying medical flashcards with multisyllabic words and pronunciations one one side and definitions on the other (I bet those will come in handy when Omar Epps has to study next season's scripts, too).

The mystery of why ever-obsequious Chase is working in the NICU - where he is responsible for the baby's care - and not on House's team is solved in a fairly anti-climactic way. Does he need to get away from House? Is he thinking of quitting? Did he really need a break from lying patients? No, he just needed the money of the extra shifts, because despite the death of his rich daddy, he's not rich. I believe - and hope - there will be more to the story, because right now I'm finding it hard to sympathize with poor not-rich doctor, even if Jesse Spencer did nicely convey Chase's guilt, conflicted faith, and despair when dealing with the death of his tiny patient.

I even found Cuddy depressing in this episode, though there was a lot to like too. Lisa Edelstein always injects life into this already lively show, and she's wonderfully awkward and vulnerable in a storyline that has her asking Wilson for dinner and House and Wilson speculating on whether it's a date or an oncology consult. "She's smart, funny, got a zesty bod. I think it's great you can look beyond the fact that she's the devil," House tells the hoping-for-a-date Wilson - because, Wilson says, the alternative is cancer, before pointedly questioning why House is so interested.

The depressing part is that I don't want to think of strong, cool Cuddy auditioning her subordinates as sperm donors, which is what House deduces she was doing with Wilson. And really, the fact that he's tracking her menstrual cycles enough to know when she's going to ovulate is just creepy, even for him. Plus, it's a huge leap for me to buy the premise that she wanders the maternity ward and indulges in frozen treats in a regular monthly cycle. The revelation that Cuddy is on fertility drugs and is shopping for sperm poses the intriguing and slightly horrifying "are they really going in that direction?" question. "When's our date?" House asks, possibly with a tiny trace of jealousy. No, they wouldn't really go there, would they?

This season, House only has two more episodes to go anywhere. Sigh. That's depressing, too. The next one airs Tuesday, May 16 at 9 p.m.


Monday, May 08, 2006

A Non-Techie’s Adventures with Computer-Based PVRs

Want TiVo-like technology without the subscription fees … even without the TV? A few months ago, I described my attempts to set up my computer as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), but I hadn't yet decided on the software I would use with my brand-new TV tuner card. Since then, I've tested the rudimentary PVR software that came with the card, then tried Sage TV and Beyond TV before deciding to purchase the latter.

This won't be a point-by-point comparison between the different options and their features. If that annoys you, let me draw your attention to the words “non-techie” in the title, and translate the phrase for you: I don't know what I'm talking about.

I may not know specs, but I know what I like. And what I like is a system that lets me do what I want to do with the least amount of hair-pulling possible. The advantage I have over a true technophobe is that while I might be a bit of an idiot about computers, I’m not afraid of them, so I will blithely mess around until I get things right. Plus, I'm not ashamed to follow directions.

The disadvantage is that while I find it a fun challenge to get everything working properly, I have limited patience for technology that’s supposed to make my life easier instead making my life a dark pit of unending torment. So if I can set up a computer-based PVR by myself, I’m convinced almost anyone else can too.

It all started with TiVo jealousy provoked by my American friends (it isn't easily available in Canada - they now offer subscriptions here, but you have to cross the border to buy the sets). The integrated PVR my cable company offers would be great if they had one for non-HDTV customers, and if the price wasn't so steep.

But the low start-up cost of a computer-based system, with no subscription fees, might have swayed me to choose that option even if I did have others. Once I bought the TV tuner card for my computer (for $100 Canadian on sale), and the PVR software (Beyond TV for $70 US), my financial outlay is complete.

It also has the dubious advantage of allowing me to watch TV in the background while I’m working in my TV-less home office. That may not be great for my productivity, but it is unexpectedly one of my favourite features. The downside, which I can happily live with, is that I either have to watch programs on my computer or burn them to DVD before watching them on my television.

Both systems can be controlled with a remote, though the one included with the tuner card I got is basically useless. Beyond TV and Sage sell remote controls, but I stick with keyboard commands and the mouse, since I don't have much choice but to sit at my desk while watching the computer.

Must Have: TV Tuner Card

The first step was to purchase a TV tuner card for the computer, so I picked up the Beyond TV-recommended Hauppage WinTV-150. The more easily satisfied could stop there and use the included software, and the more technically inclined could use the more sophisticated but free MythTV or GB-PVR. I did attempt to look at both of those, but came away convinced I would need a degree in computer engineering to figure them out.

If you don’t have a cable or satellite box, you just need access to a cable outlet. Because I have a set-top box for digital cable, the IR blaster (the, um, infrared thingamabob that changes the channel) has to be attached to both the computer and the television, meaning the two devices have to be reasonably close together - an extension proved impossible to find. For me, this required a little rearranging of my office furniture, but at least my office and living room are adjoining. The alternative would have been to forgo recording off the digital channels, which wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker, but would have been a missed opportunity hanging over my sad head.

The IR blaster simply attaches to the box with double sided tape, so it shouldn't have been an unforeseen occurrence when the tape came unstuck, causing the scheduled recording to pick up ABC, the last channel I'd watched, not the intended FOX. The tragic mishap of having Hope & Faith and Less Than Perfect recorded instead of House taught me to be vigilant about checking if the device is still attached any time I settle down to watch TV live.

My Choice: Beyond TV

The included software, WinTV, was a huge step forward from my Jurassic-era VCR setup, and would have been absolutely enough for my needs. But when we’re talking about recording television, we’re talking about wants, not needs, and I wanted the ability to use integrated TV listings to make it even simpler not to miss my favourite shows. Other features, such as more control over the format of saved shows and the ability to automatically skip commercials were bonuses I soon didn’t want to live without.

I tested Beyond TV for its 30-day free trial, and it was love at 30-days' sight. It's generally intuitive both to set up and use, though there are quirks and the help files are a bit spotty. Still, with some determined fiddling, I managed to discover how to watch a show without it being squished into a tiny, distorted rectangle in the centre of the screen.

The SnapStream guide allows you to view the programming grid and select shows to record at the click of a button - either single episodes, all episodes, or just new episodes. The padding can be adjusted, so the system will record however many minutes you specify before and after the scheduled start and end times of the show, but you're at the mercy of the programming grid. I attempted to record the Oscars (I know, but I'm an awards show junkie), and completely forgot that everyone but TV listings compilers know the show always goes long. I hear Crash might have won, though.

The ability to set priorities means if there's ever a scheduling conflict, you have already decided which show is recorded over another (you can set up it up to record two or more shows at a time, but you need additional tuner cards). You can search for programs by title or keyword, and set up recordings remotely through an Internet-based login.

With my tuner card, I can only record in MPEG-2 format, but there is a setting (ShowSqueeze) that will automatically convert recordings later to AVI or Windows Media format and either save or delete the original, saving space on the hard drive. Another optional setting (SmartSkip) inserts chapter breaks that allow you to skip easily (though not always perfectly) over commercial breaks.

Another Choice: Sage TV

Sage TV ($80) has a 14-day trial period as opposed to Beyond TV's 30-day trial, but I didn't need the whole two weeks to make the decision in favour of Beyond TV. They both have much the same capabilities, though Sage actually has the edge with additional features - but they are features I didn't want. The extra $10 for Sage TV isn't hugely significant, but it didn't add any value for me.

The biggest issue - and I recognize it's not that big - was that when the Sage viewer is not full screen, I couldn't read the menu text. Instead of distinct icons, all I saw were a series of identical bars. There are probably keyboard shortcuts I could learn, but Beyond TV had made it too easy for me with clear onscreen menu options, and I didn't want to struggle with something less user-friendly and more expensive, whose added functionality I didn't want.

The most interesting feature Sage has over Beyond TV is Intelligent Recording. As in, it will record programs it thinks you'll like based on what you already watch. I encountered a problem early on: it wasn't very intelligent. I had it set to automatically record House, Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, My Name is Earl, and The Office. It came back with Intelligent Recordings of 24 (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not my taste) and a half hour of paid programming (there's a lot wrong with that) before I turned off the feature.

I'm sure it would have become smarter as it had more exposure to my viewing habits. It's possible it monitored what I watched live, and randomly changing channels while I tested the system threw it off. But for me there is a larger issue. Each program takes up space on my hard drive, and I don't make time for all the TV shows I know I'd like to watch. Now that I've gotten cozy with my chosen system, I've added Battlestar Galactica and Slings & Arrows to my list of automatic recordings, but all that means is I now have even more shows languishing unwatched in my folder for too long. I really don't need my computer taunting me with the knowledge that there's a lot of quality TV out there I'm not keeping up with.

But Is It For You?

A computer-based PVR won't be for everyone, but it's been a near-ideal solution for me, since I don't mind watching TV on my desktop or burning to a re-recordable DVD in order to get comfier in my living room.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some TV to catch up on.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cultivating a Cult Audience: An Interview with Scrubs Creator Bill Lawrence

It's the show that can't lose. Despite being bounced around NBC's schedule over the years, despite not making it onto the fall schedule this past season, despite doubts about renewal year after year, Scrubs is the Timex watch, the Energizer bunny, the Name-Your-Cliché-for-Durability of TV shows.

Its loyal fan base means ratings have remained steady, if never stellar, through the uncertainty. It's gained critical acclaim, and nominations for best comedy and for Zach Braff as lead comedy actor at the last Emmys, whose September broadcast might have given a boost to Scrubs' fifth season if the premiere hadn't had to wait until January.

The show can't lose with me, either. A cable package with both Eastern and Pacific time zone feeds became a necessity when it was scheduled against that other medical show I enjoy Tuesdays at 9 p.m. And despite getting stood up a few times for my interview with creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence, who's been rewriting a movie script and directing a television pilot during Scrubs' hiatus, I couldn't give up on the show that won't give up.

But the biggest indication the show can't lose is that Lawrence has been vocal lately about surefire renewal. If NBC doesn't pick the show up, he says, ABC is waiting in the wings.

"ABC not only owns the show, but the person who ran Touchstone Studios when it was developed is Steve McPherson, and he's president of the network now," said Lawrence. "So he's basically told us that if NBC can't work this financial deal out, it will be on ABC next year."

The unusual arrangement - being wholly owned by one network and aired on another - has contributed to its ugly treatment by NBC, who don't stand to gain as much financially from its success. But it's also led to a more promisingly unusual arrangement by making Scrubs' availability on iTunes "the first time two rival media companies have joined together in a digital download deal," according to the LA Times. It's a feat that isn't quite equivalent to peace in the Middle East, but means competitors NBC and Touchstone were able to work out a precedent-setting profit-sharing arrangement.

Reaching out to the audience: "We happen to know our core group of fans are very Internet savvy."

Explaining Scrubs' tenacity, a grateful Lawrence kept coming back to those loyal fans. "We lovingly call them our nerds. It's seriously a giant testament to them that the show's still alive."

"If you're not that giant hit, you have to tap into what people who love your show like, and keep it interesting and satisfying to them," he said, explaining the importance Scrubs has placed on iTunes, behind-the-scenes blogs, audio commentary, videos (such as excerpts from J.D.'s Dr. Acula movie, a running joke in the show), and other Internet-based extras, including a Name Carla and Turk's Baby contest.

These aren't all just products of NBC's marketing department, either. "One of the cool things about Scrubs is it's like a weird college filmmaking class," joked Lawrence. "We work in this creepy, deserted hospital in the Valley. All the writers are there, all the actors are there, we all still hang out. And writers and actors alike come up with all this odd Internet stuff."

More than a comedy: "Our fans want to get into the depths of people's lives."

But the content of the show itself is, of course, the reason these viewers are already engaged enough to lap up its creative methods for fan engagement.

The last episodes of the season air over the next two Tuesdays, and Lawrence promises to "drop a couple of bombs" - another sign of his confidence that May 16 is the season finale, not the series finale. "One of the things we like doing as a writing staff is ending the year with things we have to deal with or unravel the next year, because it helps us dive into stories when we come back."

This season, Lawrence and his writers decided to embrace the creative freedom of a show that had nothing to lose. "We've just been doing whatever has made us laugh, and for whatever reason, it's garnered us a bit of a critical renaissance," he said. "So we're going to keep doing that. This year we really stopped trying to be everything to everybody and just did the things that made not only us, but our core group of fans laugh."

Scrubs is not just about the laughs, though. Recently it dealt with a decision by Dr. Cox that resulted in three patients' deaths, and his subsequent drinking binge. That sombre storyline was surrounded by elements such as J.D.'s absurd fantasies and The Todd's now equal-opportunity sexual innuendo.

"One of the goals we had on this show early on was to take shows like The Wonder Years and M*A*S*H as models," said Lawrence, who co-created Spin City at age 26 and also wrote for Friends' first season. "We feel the most successful episodes of Scrubs are ones that can make the transition from very broad, silly comedy to something with emotional impact and depth very quickly. When it works, usually they're our favourite episodes."

Scrubs has evolved as the core characters progressed from interns to residents to attendings, with newbie J.D. now the near-equal of his mentor, Cox, and with his own group of newbies to teach. "I feel like the show's point of view has evolved from that child-like innocence into a more comedic, cynical, been-there-done-that atmosphere," he remarked.

Another change is on the horizon, as Carla and Turk prepare to welcome that fan-named baby. Lawrence plans to introduce the new addition as just another factor in the characters' lives rather than having "a thousand episodes about the cute little kid."

"It's not going to be the big sweeps episode: 'Here's the baby!' They'll have a kid somewhere in the early part of next season and they'll evolve as any couple would and deal with the hassle of being a nurse and a doctor and working those crazy hours and having a kid to take care of."

But he also hints at a patented Scrubs spin on the theme. "We certainly aren't always treading new ground, but when we do stuff other sitcoms have done, we try to do it bigger and differently."

DVD and soundtrack release: "We're very nerdy about it."

The season three DVD set will be released on May 9, and the same thought that goes into the Internet extras went into the DVD, which will include commentaries and numerous interviews. "We take great pains in making sure there are extras on the DVD that will make our fans happy," Lawrence declared.

Another Scrubs soundtrack, a follow up to the 2002 release, also will be available May 9, exclusively on iTunes. Music for the show is hand-picked by writers, cast, and crew, who focus on relatively unknown artists with songs that reflect themes of an episode.

"A lot of times when we're outlining a show, we'll do it with a song in mind, because we really try to make the lyrics land with the visuals images that we're showing," he explained. "We're especially careful about this nowadays, because so many shows are doing end-of-show musical montages now. If they don’t stand out and they don’t seem special and well done, then you seem like you're just one of the crowd."

Zach Braff's college friends Cary Brothers and Joshua Radin feature on the new soundtrack. Lawrence's wife, Christa Miller - who plays Cox's wife, Jordan, and whose real-life pregnancy will contribute to next season being "inundated with babies and baby stuff" - selected Colin Hay and Tammany Hall. "She picks so much of the music for the show that a lot of the writers and actors don't even go to me anymore when they have a song," he laughed. "They hand it to her."

Loyalty versus numbers: "That same core group has followed us from timeslot to timeslot."

Tending to their "nerds" in everything they do, from music selection, to DVD extras, to supplementary Internet materials, to, oh yes, writing the episodes, fits with Lawrence's philosophy on television in general.

"If you're super, super lucky, you have one of those giant hits that just grabs the public zeitgeist, whether it's Grey's Anatomy or American Idol or one of those shows that seems like a giant steamroller that everybody in the world watches. In which case, you get to sit back and celebrate," he said. "If you aren't that, I feel the only way to survive is to become a cult show, in the sense that your core audience is so loyal that they will follow you and stick with you and truly keep your show alive and successful for the network."

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great example of this," he continued. "It was never a huge hit, but had such a loyal cult following that it basically drove that show into long-term success. The Family Guy, their cult following put that show back on the air."

He credits Scrubs' core audience with helping the show survive multiple timeslot changes despite lackluster promotion from NBC. But he rejects the notion that his show or any other has been the victim of a downward trend in comedy.

"The only thing that's really changed in television is that people have so many options," Lawrence claimed. "Sitcoms aren't dead. It's just that crappy television is dead. I think it's so competitive out there right now that a middle-of-the-road show that's just OK, nothing special, isn't going to survive the way it used to."

So maybe it's obvious why this winning show can't lose: Bill Lawrence has managed to veer skillfully toward the edges of that road, and has reached out to the audience who have demonstrated that they're thrilled to be along for the ride.

For more of the interview, see the Q&A of our discussion.