Thursday, January 31, 2008

The goddess of green

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the green dress that adorned Keira Knightley in Atonement deserves an Oscar. Oh sure, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to give the film a Costume Design nomination, but that's not what I meant at all. That dress deserves a Best Supporting Inanimate Object (That's Really Quite Animated) statue at least.

I don't want the dress. I want to be the dress.

But those of you who would settle for owning it are in luck. If you have a few greenbacks to spend on the green bit of silk. From an NBC Universal media release:
An iconic piece of movie history from one of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees will be auctioned off to benefit Variety – The Children's Charity of Southern California, beginning later this week.

The Clothes Off Our Back Foundation will host the online auction of the green evening dress worn by Keira Knightley in Focus Features' Atonement, which is nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Costume Design.

The auction begins Friday, February 1st at the Foundation's site and ends Saturday, March 1st. Bidding will start at $1,000. The auction is for the green evening dress memorably worn during the crucial emotional and romantic sequences by Ms. Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, opposite James McAvoy as Robbie Turner, in director Joe Wright's Atonement. Upon the film's release, the dress quickly became one of the most influential cinematic costumes of recent years, being spotlighted on The Today Show and detailed on the covers of newspapers and magazines.

The dress being auctioned off, taken directly from the production's archives, is one of a handful that was made specifically for Ms. Knightley to wear during filming. Multiples were fashioned because of the fragility of the dress. The dress being auctioned off was made under the supervision of, and has been authenticated by, Jacqueline Durran, who is nominated for an Academy Award for her costume design of Atonement.

Ms. Durran elaborated, "Joe Wright wanted something that would flow because Keira Knightley would have to move around in it. We picked this specific shade of green for the backless dress, and Keira was involved in the process, so it really was a collaboration."
(The green dress wants me to remind you that smoking's bad, kids.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

When I was in high school, my English teacher had us read Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" and write an essay outlining how we would react to that society, a society where everyone was equal because anyone above average was artificially handicapped. Ballerinas danced with weights and face masks so they were no more graceful or beautiful than anyone else. News anchors had speech impediments. Intelligent people were equipped with a transmitter that sent sharp noises into their brains to scatter their thoughts. The title character is a 14-year-old genius and athlete who rejects his handicapping and rescues a ballerina from hers. True to bizarre Vonnegut form, though, the story doesn't end in triumph.

Our teacher singled my essay out, not because it was superior to the rest, but because it was unique from the rest. Each of us in our International Baccalaureate class assumed we'd have the mental handicap foisted on us, and everyone but me took on the Harrison Bergeron role. Except they, of course, would be even more clever, and therefore successful in overthrowing the current regime.

I, on the other hand, assumed I could shut up and betray no outward signs of above-average-ness, thereby avoiding the attentions of the Handicapper General. I wrote that as long as I could still think, as long as I could still be me inside my own head, I'd be fine. I had no illusions, then or now, about my revolutionary prospects, and I still think many of my classmates overestimated their own.

Why I read, why I watch TV, why I go to movies, stems from that same value I place on imagination. Inside my head is where I make sense of the chaos of the world. Inside my head I lead many lives, which comes in handy when the external one disappoints. An imagination is what allows us to empathize with others and understand our world. Imagination is, to a large degree, our humanity. As long as I have that, I have everything. Or at least, I can imagine I do.

But "Harrison Bergeron" didn't make me ponder a life devoid of everything but imagination. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did, and the idea is unbearably suffocating and unexpectedly liberating at the same time.

Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, high-living editor of the French Elle who suffered a catastrophic stroke at the age of 43, the film is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of what it means to be human.

The film opens as Bauby awakens in a hospital room stripped of the outward signs of humanity. His "locked-in syndrome" means his mind works perfectly, only it can't communicate with his body. Paralysed from head to toe, his only window to and from the outside world is through his left eye. Our initial window into the film is exclusively through his point of view, the hazy, limited perspective of a man who can look out but can't engage with the world around him.

The womanizing Bauby is fortunate to have some highly attractive health care practitioners surrounding him, including one who comes up with a system of communication to free him somewhat from his isolation. Eventually, he dictates his autobiography through the painstaking process of blinking yes to the correct letter when the alphabet is recited to him. Days after the book's publication, Bauby died.

The movie avoids the sentimental rising-above-adversity cliché to which a lesser screenwriter or director might have succumbed. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the script in English based on that book, and Julian Schnabel, who brought his painterly eye to the film which he directed in French, bring moments of ebullience to a movie that, from its subject matter, should be horrifyingly depressing.

Not that it's lacking in Kleenex moments. But this movie is more than a tear-jerker, and more than a biography of a unique man in highly unusual circumstances. It manages to also be a profound expression of our common humanity without being pretentious about it.

One of Bauby's acquaintances, a journalist who had survived four years as a hostage in Beirut after taking Bauby's place on a hijacked place, recounts how he managed to survive by clinging to his passions, such as his love of wine. Remember your humanity, he advises. That's how you'll survive.

Bauby and therefore Schnabel use the metaphor of the diving bell to describe the experience of locked-in syndrome, an impenetrable barrier that separates his body from the world around him. But Bauby's humanity lies in his imagination and his memories, the butterfly of his metaphoric title. We catch glimpses of him as a child, as a father, as a son, as a lover, in the memories that flit through his consciousness. We also see in his imagination a flirtation with the Empress Eugenie, historic patroness of the hospital where he now resides, and melting glaciers imbued with their own metaphorical meaning.

Despite unrolling largely from the confined point of view of a man locked in his own mind, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly soars on the humour, passion, and meaning that Bauby's painfully won words bring to the film. The film is a testament to the power of the imagination to be as revolutionary as any coup d’état.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Slippery success

An interesting side effect of the WGA strike is that it's functioning as an experiment on audience behaviour. We're both loyal and fickle beings, us audience members. Fickle in that the industry never really knows what's going to appeal to us until it does, as we reject what seems cloned from what we loved the year before, and embrace what we'd previously rejected in another guise. Loyal in that we miss our favourites and don't easily replace them with others, as the strike is proving.

There are fewer new episodes of scripted shows, yet mid-season replacements aren't seeing a ratings surge. Even American Idol is down from last year.

Which goes to show we won't watch just anything. It's easy to be snide about the taste of the general public in looking at the ratings charts, but the fact remains: we make conscious choices with our remote controls. We don't just consume whatever the TV industry wants to throw at us, even when it happens to be the only new thing on the air that doesn't involve dancing celebrities, Donald Trump, or Simon Cowell.

The Wire, in its fifth and final acclaimed season, was off to a slow start in the ratings, and they're falling each week. October Road, which debuted well last year, is registering dismal ratings now. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, dropped to 8.6 million last week after its football-stoked debut of 18 million.

8.6 million is bordering on failure for an American network drama. Translate that to the Canadian population and it works out to about 800,000. And during this US writers strike that started with Canadian producers crowing about how American networks were showing interest in buying their series, and continues with them pointing out that they stand to benefit from the lack of competition on US networks, Canadian dramas are faring no better, proportionally speaking.

January is the first time in my (short) memory that we've had anything approaching a Canadian television season, with more than a show or two sprinkled randomly around the schedule. Besides shows like Heartland and Da Kink in My Hair that launched in the fall and were still airing new episodes, we had CBC with four new scripted shows: The Border, jPod, Sophie, and MVP; Citytv's premiere of Murdoch Mysteries; and Global presenting The Guard.

The Guard is the ratings champion so far at 800,000 for its series premiere. Global sent out a media release trumpeting its win over the more-ballyhooed CBC slate, which was a refreshing change from them sending a Canadian TV website a media release trumpeting the fact that House squashed Intelligence in the ratings. So bragging about 800,000 viewers for its Canadian show is a good start for a Canadian network, I guess.

But those ratings are not good. In fact, they are bad. These are new, expensive, well-publicized shows airing in primetime, in prime television-watching season against very little competition thanks to that writers strike. I hope positive word of mouth builds and turns some of them into hits, but they're not there yet, no matter how much the networks try to spin it that way.

CBC at one point floated 1 million viewers as their target for a hit show, and it's not as arbitrary a figure as some would say. 1 million viewers would put a show at the low end of the top 30 programs in Canada. Top 30 is not an unreasonable measure for a hit. The current crop of shows, the great white northern hopes, have not managed to crack that list.

What does not making the top 30 mean? None of these supposedly successful new Canadian shows managed to beat Dr. Phil, Jeopardy and Access Hollywood, The Ghost Whisperer, Las Vegas, or the on-life-support ER, never mind repeats of certified hits like CSI.

They have, however, managed to beat Intelligence, The Jane Show, and Whistler. So this is how we define Canadian ratings success: not sucking as much as the last crop of Canadian shows.

Some will blame the audience for not giving anything Canadian a chance, ignoring the fact that they have, and do, and three current shows are proof of that. Corner Gas and the Rick Mercer Report regularly make the top 20, and Little Mosque on the Prairie occasionally peeks its head into the top 30. These are shows that scream Canadiana and don't seem to frighten the Canadians.

But finger pointing is easier than looking in a mirror.

Jim Henshaw holds that mirror up in his latest post. He's got a lot to say about what's wrong with the industry, that makes it hold mediocrity up as success. He's talking about quality rather than ratings, mostly, but our points are similar. If this is what the Canadian audience is being sold as success, no wonder we're hugely skeptical that our industry is even capable of recognizing excellence, never mind creating it. It's good enough seems to be their motto.

How do you achieve success when you don't have the guts to define it? There's something wrong with an industry that sets the bar for success at 1 million then is smugly satisfied with fewer than 800,000. There's something wrong with a public broadcaster that can't decide whether to nurture low-rated but quality shows like Intelligence or abandon them for higher-rated shows that are still neither critical darlings nor popularly successful by their own measure.

I can't speak to exactly what's wrong with the industry. I can only speak for what's wrong with the audience: we haven't seen anything to take our minds off the lack of our favourite shows yet. The industry can raise its voice in explanation, but the audience will be too busy speaking with our remotes to listen.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It all began when I was six, and had these shoes ...

I'm not sure I understand quite why this post from made me laugh so much. Well, not even just so much, more like I giggled on first reading it, and then stealth laughter crept up on me later.

I think it has something to do with the fact that I can totally relate to the big faux pas she describes. Her inability to tell a short story feels pretty familiar, too. The anecdote also happens to combine the sneaky hilariousness that is Pamela Ribon with a fun -- yes, fun! -- anecdote about the decidedly not-fun WGA strike, mixes in some House writer name-dropping, and features some other random famous people (because everyone in Hollywood eats lunch together).

No excerpt will do it justice --you've got to read Name Dropping... and Shattering in its entirety for the ultimate payoff. But here's a taste:

Recently, Sara, Liz and I decide to get post-picket lunch. We end up meeting at a sushi place where we're informed it's closing in five minutes, so we have to order quickly. We agree, and as I walk to the restroom to wash my hands, I see the only other occupied table in the restaurant. It's Jimmy Kimmel, with some friends.

When I get back to our table, there's some light, quiet joking that the women dressed in full-on Strike gear could potentially end up in a rumble with Kimmel and his co-workers. ("That'll get Nikki Finke posting again!")

After we've placed our order, Jimmy Kimmel and his friends get up to leave. We quietly watch them go, wondering if this is awkward or just Hollywood these days.

"Jimmy Kimmel looks tired," Liz comments.

"Jimmy Kimmel drives a nice car," I say, watching him climb into his vehicle.

The waitress approaches us. "By the way," she says. "That man just paid your check."

There's a moment of stunned shock as the three of us stare at each other. Then I ran out to the parking lot, waving my hand, shouting, "Thank you! Seriously! Thank you!"

He laughed, said no problem, and drove away.

You gotta read the whole thing though.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

More musical memories

My car seems to bring up many musical memories. I wrote earlier about the song that makes me sing out loud and act like a human bobblehead every time it comes on the car stereo. Today, a song I detest came on as I was driving, bringing back fond memories of my two years in Mexico. That made me reflect on the string of often-mediocre songs that have become my musical memory of countries who can't always even be blamed for the music.

The entire time I was in France on a one-month exchange in high school, a 14-year-old Vanessa Paradis (that's almost-Mrs. Johnny Depp to you now) was on top of the charts with Joe le Taxi. At least she is, in fact, French. And so very, very 80s in this video:

When I was in Peru, Manu Chao's music was everywhere. He is French and Spanish, but something of a Latin American hero, a musical Che Guevara:

On that same trip to the Andes, we heard a familiar melody several times. Our guide in Bolivia assured us that it wasn't a region populated with Simon and Garfunkel fans, but rather Paul Simon had used a South American melody set to English words for El Condor Pasa (If I Could). That song never fails to bring my Bolivian adventure to mind:

Poor Mexico drew the short straw in this musical memory tour, with the song that inspired this reflection. When I first arrived in 2000, Bolivian group Azul Azul's smash hit La Bomba was everywhere - blaring in buses, stores, bars, homes. Everywhere. All the time. And this is the song, much as I hate it, that conjures so many fond memories of Mexico, a country that should not be blamed for its existence:

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Navel gazing, eh?

There's nothing more navel gazing than a blog post about blogging. But I'm constantly confronted with my ambivalence about the term, because while this here thing you're reading is clearly a blog as everyone knows it, I never use the term when referring to TV, Eh? and find it jarring when others do.

To me, a blog is really a technology, a type of website set up for continuous chronological entries with the ability for readers to comment (though of course not all blogs have that last part, even if they should). By that definition, TV, Eh? is unquestionably a blog. And yet I avoid the word and simply say I run a website that promotes Canadian television.

Because in common understanding – particularly among non-bloggers – a blog is a website of personal expression, an online diary of sorts. By that measure, TV, Eh? doesn't fit, since very little is my own original writing, and what is my original writing is actually from Blogcritics and treated like any other article link.

People not unreasonably assume that the site – the blog – is an extension of my personal taste, that I'm a huge fan of Canadian TV. I'm not. Oh, I'm a fan of Intelligence and Slings and Arrows, and enjoy other Canadian shows, but I'm not a fan of Canadian TV in general. I'm a fan of good TV, wherever it comes from. So that word I object to personalizes the association between blog and blogger to a degree I'm not comfortable with.

I've witnessed a Canadian actor's lips curl on hearing that I blog about Canadian TV. I've had a reporter hesitate to call me a blogger, fearing that it sounded diminishing. And yet that's what it is, a web log chronicalling what's going on in Canadian TV.

While I enjoy maintaining the website, what's going on in Canadian TV right now makes me want to distance myself from any personal connection to it even more. It's disheartening in a time when there are more Canadian series on the air right now than at any time I've been doing the site, when a US writers strike means there's little competition for non-reality eyeballs. Unfortunately, the greater exposure has also exponentially increased exposure to the underbelly of the industry.

If there's anything more navel-gazing than blogging about blogging, it's the Canadian TV industry talking about itself. I've been witnessing industry insiders desperately trying to convince people that they're wrong or stupid for not liking their show, and ratings spin that makes your head spin. And seriously, do I need the husband of a writer telling me I should like his wife's show more? Let me tell you – let John Doyle tell you – I do not.

I started TV, Eh? because publicity for the industry seemed to be in its infancy and it was something I could do that matched my webgeek interests with my interest in behind-the-scenes TV. A year and a half later, after encountering publicists who have no interest in publicizing, and TV insiders and their relatives who can't let their work speak for itself and find every excuse for failure except "the audience wasn't interested," I wish that infant would grow the hell up.

Harsh? Maybe so. But as I've said before using a different metaphor, if the Canadian TV industry wants to be taken seriously by the audience, they need to take their professionalism seriously first.

Murdoch Mysteries

I reviewed the upcoming Citytv series Murdoch Mysteries, and was disappointed, despite my inexplicable crush on leading man Yannick Bisson. I mean, I watched more than one episode of Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye for him, and this show didn't impress me much more than that one:
  • TV Review: Murdoch Mysteries Puts CSI Techniques in a Time Machine
    "Unfortunately, the first episode isn't a strong start to the series. Murdoch himself fades into the background, overshadowed by a bizarre guest character — the real-life eccentric Nikola Tesla — and a romantic subplot involving his young sidekick, Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris). Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy of Durham County), one of Murdoch's few supporters in the police department, is likewise given little to do but reveal autopsy results." Read more.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Friend of the blog Jill Golick, a Canadian TV writer, is launching a cool new experiment in online storytelling, so I interviewed her for a Blogcritics article:
  • Story2Oh! Spreads Its Narrative Across the Internet
    "The groundwork for the story, which launches in earnest on Monday, January 14, has already begun. Ali Barrett writes a knitting blog, Ali Purls, where she unfavourably compares clingy boyfriend Devon Ross to a poncho she knit out of shedding baby alpaca wool. He's sent her a Facebook gift of a roll of duct tape with the message 'we can fix this.' Her wall betrays her flirtation with Simon Beals, author of the boytellsall blog and videocast (and who is himself quite the flirt, choosing to indicate that he and I are Facebook Friends because we "hooked up and it was glorious.") " Read more.
EDIT: I just noticed Blogcritics took out a paragraph that ties one of the goals behind the WGA strike to this project more explicitly. I'm not going to fight the edit because god knows, my stuff should usually be shorter and it is an expendable paragraph. But I liked what Jill had to say when I asked her if the strike was part of the impetus behind the project, so I'll include it here (it went after the paragraph that first mentions the strike):
"I started working on this way before the strike, but the issues underlying the strike are part of what made me want to give it a shot," Golick explained. "I believe that the financial system underlying the creation of television in Canada is flawed. I don't think it leads us to produce the best product and it often leads to something less than creative satisfaction for the writer/creators. Never mind the issues of getting an audience. The US system is problematic too. The multinational media conglomerates have a stranglehold on the system. Greed doesn't seem a very compatible bedfellow for creativity."

See, this is just like a DVD extra!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Musical memory

The lovely and multitalented Will Dixon, writer/director/industry suit/blogger, recently posted the question:
What's the song when you hear in the car that you have to turn up LOUD, or if at home, dance madly around the office?
Will apparently never leaves his office, poor man.

My belated response, the first answer that came to mind, isn't something I'm all that proud of, which is probably why it's belated. I had to work up to admitting it. It's one of those infectious songs that isn't my favourite by a long shot, isn't the best I can think of, but it's the song that, invariably, I have to turn up and sing along with at the top of my tuneless voice. And then my head involuntarily does this funny bobbing thing, side to side.

The song? Hey Ya by Outkast.

Mock away.

It wasn't until this past Thanksgiving that I discovered why I do that side-to-side head bobbing thing.

I am the twins in the purple dresses. I'd seen the video long ago, but didn't tie the two together until I was driving in the car when that song came on (on a homemade CD where it's followed by Ben Heppner singing Nessun Dorma - I'm either eclectic or tone deaf). I had to turn it up, of course, and my passenger recognized the little head dance I was doing.

That's what music can do to you: it seeps into your bones and your brain and evokes buried memories as well as pure unadulterated joy. Even an inane song like Hey Ya.

The equally-lovely-as-Will-but-for-whole-different-reasons John Doyle, TV critic for the Globe and Mail, wrote a Christmas Eve column "giving thanks to the artists who make it a wonderful life." He starts with an anecdote of tired and grumpy Christmas shoppers standing in line at a grocery store when Feist's 1234 started playing, and the crowd's mood shifted.

In an uncharacteristically sweet article, the usually hilariously cranky Doyle told an anecdote about having seen a pre-Feist Feist on the streets of Toronto, and continued:

I'm sure that some of the people in the store last week have, like me, lived long enough in the area to have passed Leslie Feist on the street, not knowing who she was or not imagining that her talent, her voice would one day bring an important few minutes of joy: A mother and child dancing to the sound of her music in a crowded store full of tired, sullen, stressed people; the mother-and-child being at the heart of the Christmas story that is, in turn, at the heart of the season that was making everyone so frantic and tired.

So I figured that I'd tell you the story so you might know this: Take pleasure in ephemera this season, in the small poetry of passing moments of joy that the most slender elements of the popular culture can bring. And remember that someone created those moments, a writer, a singer, an actor, a musician, someone you've passed on the street who had a talent, a gift unknown to you. And when you're giving gifts, remember that gifts are given to us every day by people we don't know, would never recognize.

According to the Christian tradition, which dominates the season for better or worse, miracles surrounded Christ's birth. Well, there is something miraculous too about the pleasure that sweet, ephemeral entertainment can bring. And something miraculous about the creation of it. Enjoy it, whether you find it on television, in music or somewhere else. Take solace in the joy it brings and use the joy to tell someone you love them more.
How beautiful is that? A lot more beautiful than tying an anecdote into some sense memory of a spoof Charlie Brown video. So even though the sentiment is belated for the season intended, it's worth remembering when we do something as simple as turning up the songs that infect our minds and bob our heads.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


By the way, the post below had nothing to do with the recent science-y interiews, just a recent spate of similar requests about previous TV writer interviews. But speaking of website crushes (I was so, here), see that Pop Candy widget that's a little too big for my sidebar? Remember me constantly linking to things I've found there, like the predicting the future video, REM tribute album, ASCII pictures, and face transformer? Now, remember my website fangirliness over TV Tattle linking to the Metaphorical Medicine of House article? Well that same article got a link today from Pop Candy, another site I adore. Pardon me while I squee.

I really am a fangirl for weird things, aren't I?

Landing an Interview 101

I’m no expert, but with the long tail of the Internet making my TV interviews continue to be some of the most popular items I’ve written, I get sporadic but not infrequent requests for advice on how to contact the people I’ve interviewed. If the idea is to reach out as a fan or with some business proposition, I tell the inquirer to look for the public email or snail mail on the network website. It’s the lazy answer, but then it’s lazy to ask me the question.

But some are simply newbie writers or podcasters asking for advice on how to get started interviewing people, and I can understand the desire for a little hand-holding when it can first seem like a mysterious and rejection-prone process.

I’ll admit to a little hesitance to answer those kinds of questions because we’ve all seen the underbelly of the Internet, including fans whose grasp on reality is shaky, and I don’t want to help potential stalkers or even potential annoyers. It's always seemed to me that someone likely to be granted an interview is also someone likely to be able to figure out how to request an interview. But it also seems there are writers and podcasters just starting out with interviews who need some encouragement to get over their fear of the unknown and give it a shot, and I understand that feeling.

I’ll write this about TV specifically, since those are the blog-related interviews I’ve done, but if you’re clever I’m sure you can see how it relates to movies or books or music or even non-entertainment subjects, though some of those people will be much easier to reach.

Before you start

If you’re aiming for the A-list stars and feel the need to read this, you’re probably dreaming (though, who knows?). However, there are many people out there – actors, writers, directors, what have you – with a creative product to sell who might be willing to sell it to your readers or listeners.

Those readers or listeners are the first step, by the way. Don’t expect people with much of a public profile to grant an interview to a publication with no public profile, unless you have a personal connection or they’re very desperate or very kind. That doesn’t mean you have to write for The New York Times, obviously, or I’d never land an interview. But you need to write for a website that has a readership beyond your friends and family. Unless you have a really, really big family.

So first step, if that’s not you, would be to sign up with a website that has something of a profile and build your writing portfolio there. Done? OK then.

Finding contact information

First, the tough love for those who have asked or think about asking: I will never pass on contact information. It would be unethical, and I find it rude to be asked. I won’t pass your interview request on, either, and it probably wouldn't help you if I did. However, if you have personal contacts who might get you close to your interviewee, see if you can make that work. I am not your personal contact unless I’ve given you a Christmas present in the last two years. And even then, you’d better be planning to give me a big one next year.

With Google and the proliferation of blogs and MySpace pages and whatnot among creative folks, you might be able to contact your prospective interviewee directly. Most likely, especially if they’re higher up the food the chain, that’s not going to work.

My interviews have usually been arranged through network publicists or, in the case of the Banff World Television Festival interviews*, their PR people. Some network media sites have open access, some require you to register and be approved in order to enter. “Media” they'll accept include websites like Blogcritics, so as long as you write or podcast or whatever for a platform that has some credibility, you likely won’t have a problem.

If you're writing for a reasonably big site, they might already have the contacts. And no, I'm not going to link to the network media sites. That'll be my sword-in-the-stone test: If you have a problem even finding that, you probably need to hone your research skills before considering doing an interview.

Making the ask

The PR person is a gatekeeper. Part of their responsibility is to protect the image of the show and the people involved in it. Make it easy for them to decide your request is worthy of consideration.

When you’re asking for the interview, from a PR person or directly to the interviewee, remember: No one’s doing you a favour. Your fervent desire for the interview will have nothing to do with their decision about whether to grant it. Sell your request on what it means for them, not how much it will mean to you. Presumably you can offer a reasonably professional, insightful look at their show that will reach enough people to justify the time involved for the interviewee (no, I wouldn’t suggest you use that line with them, but your pitch, platform and portfolio should all help sell that idea for you).

To get into the nitty gritty, when I make my interview request, I send a brief e-mail saying who I want to talk to and about what, briefly give my credentials – who I write for and what I've written in the past – and then a one sentence introduction to what Blogcritics is, how many visitors it gets, maybe name one of the awards it’s received, and I add the fact that it’s a Google News and Yahoo News source. It’s not the New York Times, but I want to make it clear that neither is it Unified Theory of Nothing Much.

It’s a minor point, but I also use a professional e-mail address (i.e. not Gmail or hotmail).

You might want to do the pitch by phone. I hate asking for pretty much anything, including interviews, so making the pitch via e-mail minimizes my discomfort. More importantly, it also lets me include links to 2-3 relevant articles in my portfolio, which I think are crucial given I write for a site they likely haven’t heard of.

You might face rejection. Rejection might take the form of not hearing back. If you’re determined, the smart thing to do might be a quick and polite follow up phone call to the PR person (I wouldn’t, but that’s me). After that, I'd say move on. Maybe build your interview portfolio with more willing subjects and try again later armed with evidence that you’re a good risk.

Facing the interview

When you land the interview, the same is true: No one’s doing you a favour. If they’ve agreed to an interview, it’s for publicity for their product. No need to pledge your firstborn child. You might be nervous; I always am. They might be nervous. Imagine they ARE nervous and it will probably make you less nervous to think of it as your job to make them less nervous. Does that sentence make you nervous?

These are very busy people, so don’t be surprised by postponements and cancellations and sometimes outright stand-ups. I actually asked Bill Lawrence’s assistant (charmingly tongue-in-cheek, I hope) if I was on Punk’d after experiencing all of the above at least in triplicate. Don’t follow my lead on that. Smiling and nodding and rescheduling is usually the way to go. That was an unusually painful get, so I was willing (almost hoping) to lose the interview by that point, and figured he would be amused rather than offended after all the smiling and nodding I’d done. It worked.

Doing the interview

Well, no, this is where I leave you to your own devices. There are lots of resources out there on how to conduct an interview -- believe me, you can do a lot better than me on that score.


Fire away. Just don’t ask me for contact information.

* Getting accredited to cover an event is usually a matter of contacting the event PR person, filling out forms and getting your editor/website publisher/etc. if applicable to sign them. Whether you’re successful or not likely will depend on the event and its criteria, and, again, the credibility of the place you publish and your past work.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Q&A with Dr. Lisa Sanders, House medical advisor

I have a bit of a website crush on TV Tattle – it's my one-stop shop for TV news, and has been in my sidebar for as long as I've had a sidebar, plus I've mentioned it as an inspiration for the TV, Eh? site. So I had my TV/webgeek moment today when they linked to my Blogcritics article The Metaphorical Medicine of House.

Anyway, I previously posted the interview with Polite Scott of Polite Dissent used in that article, so now here's the transcript of my pre-Christmas chat with Dr. Sanders. It includes a small spoiler for a future episode about half way through. I've marked it so it should be easy to skip, but strict spoilerphobes might want to stay away until the Superbowl episode has aired, in case of accidental eye grazing.

Tell me how your association with the show began. The story I've heard is that your Diagnosis column was the inspiration to begin with.

I got a call from [executive producer] Paul Attanasio the spring before they went on the air and he said "I'm putting together a show I think you'll be very interested in." I flew out to LA to meet with him, and he told me he was reading one of my columns and said "this is the show we want to do." He might have been saying that to be nice. And it was extremely nice to hear that.

The way your column is laid out seems very similar to how House attacks a case, too, so it does seem like they've kept that template.

Oh, I think so. I was very impressed with House from the beginning for what they were trying to do. The topic of what they're really looking at is how doctors think and it's not really a television friendly topic, to be honest.

What is your role as a medical advisor now? Do you comment on scripts after they're written or do you give input when they're thinking of cases?

When I see things that I think they'll like, I set them aside in a file I have. I talk to the writers; when they're looking around for ideas, they'll call me or the other technical consultants. They always like their stories to at least start in fact. What they love the most is to have a story that's based on something that actually happened. So whenever I can find crazy case reports – and there are many – I set them aside and say "hey, how about this?" I'm in this big community at Yale and so whenever something crazy happens, or Housian, I get flooded with e-mails, "why don't you use this?" I've picked up some very nice concepts and passed them on. They've used some and not used others, but it's fun.

Then I read their scripts afterwards and try to keep them from making medical errors. But I have to say, on that count they're way more sophisticated now. They're in their fourth season and they're far more sophisticated, and they just don't make many errors that they don't recognize as errors. Sometimes if it's a choice between drama or comedy and complete accuracy, accuracy loses. I understand that. But I'm there to be the voice promoting accuracy, so I point it out and they either take it or not.

Do you ever watch and think, why didn't they listen to me?

No, because I understand. It's hard to criticize their sense of drama and character. I think they're very good writers.

We had a very long fight once over something that just happened to intersect with something I care about very deeply. Not a disease, but there's this thing about medicine and language: when you learn medicine you learn a whole vocabulary. Not only do you learn a vocabulary, you learn phonemes with which you can create a word that may never have existed before but everyone will instantly understand. I love that about medicine. I also love that when you hear a word or the name of a disease you also know a lot about it just from hearing the name. And sometimes you know most everything there is to know about some diseases just from their name. I love that about medicine too.

So one script -- this has already aired, and actually it was wonderful and unbelievably funny, but, BUT -- there was a character and they wanted to imply genital contact between two characters and so they had the male character get a rash in his mouth which was promptly diagnosed as bacterial vaginosis. I wrote them an e-mail and I said you can't have bacterial vaginosis in your mouth. First of all, it doesn't grow there. But more importantly, it wouldn't be called bacterial vaginosis if it were in your mouth. The same bug in a different spot has a different name.

So they were like, "That's very nice, but this is way funnier." And you know, it was. What can I say? I fought the battle for linguistic purity and I lost to prurient humour and it was funny.

It's nice you can appreciate that, even if it's not completely accurate.

I do hear from some of the doctors at Yale who lament the inaccuracies. It's true, there are some shows that probably adhere more closely to the way things are, but I think that's because their focus is on a different thing. House is really about figuring stuff out. Because of the nature of television, it has to be about things that happen, but it's really about figuring out what's going on, whereas a program like ER is really about things that happen. You're not really figuring things out, you're trying to manage things that are happening, and that's a completely different perspective. So it's true that House takes liberties with the truth -- you know, bacterial vaginosis -- but I think it's usually in an effort to do a show about thinking. There aren't very many shows about thinking that are out there, in part because it's a very untelegenic activity, a bunch of white guys sitting around scratching themselves looking through the literature.

It's not very visual, is it?

It's not. So one of the things I love about House that I had absolutely no role in except to observe it, is ... well, my column is written the way an admission note is written. We call it an H&P, history and physical, even though it includes much more than a history and physical. All my columns follow that very rigid format. And House also follows that rigid format. So here's the format: you start off with the chief complaint and the history of the present illness. So what happened. And that's exactly how House starts off. They always start off with a tease where you see what happened and it immediately establishes all the stuff that you get in the history of the presenting illness -- how old the person is, what their social class is, what they were doing when the symptoms started, how long they last, what the nature of it is, all the stuff we teach medical students to include in their history of the presenting illness is right there. And then you go on to get the patient's medical history. And that's all woven into the script. What you really do is you say "Do you have any other medical problems, uh huh, uh huh. Diabetes? Uh huh, uh huh." You know, very boring. They don't do that.

No, they break into people's houses.

That's the great thing: House works on a metaphorical level. One of the things we do, one of the great pleasures of being a doctor, is you get to ask all these incredibly nosy, intrusive questions. People can feel extremely violated with intimacy. Of course, it's part of a trusting relationship, you hope, but you probe into the inner recesses of their personal life as if you were breaking into their house. Their propensity to break into houses is a perfect visual representation, a psychological representation, of what we're doing. So I love that, even though I have never broken into any of my patients' houses. I have on occasion made house calls, but I usually ring the doorbell and if they're not home, I come back later.

That's good to hear – what a concept.

But you know, it's not reality on a level base, it's a metaphor for something that's very true about medicine. I think House works on that level a lot. It's more of a metaphor.

They have Wilson doing surgery. Oncologists don't do surgery. A very fundamental split in medicine is you pick medicine or surgery, period. The only thing that crosses the line is OB/GYN. That's the only thing that's sort of in the middle. Everything else, if you're going into medicine, you might lance a boil, you might pick off a wart, but you don't do surgery. And yet Wilson's in there chopping up with the best of them.

He's multitalented.

He's incredibly talented.

I have never touched the controls of an MRI. In fact, if I did, I would certainly be called before the CEO of Yale-New Haven Hospital: "I understand you were touching our $6 billion MRI?" Never in a million years.

House doesn't respect much, but he respects science and he respects rationality, so some people think that even if the show doesn't get everything right, it's leading to an atmosphere of respect. Others think they leave a wrong impression of what medicine is like. It sounds like you fall more into the "it doesn't matter, it's drama, not life" category.

It doesn't matter, it's drama. But I have to say, in my academic setting, I'm a big advocate for evidence-based medicine, and to me, House is what the world would be like if nobody practiced evidence-based medicine. He never checks the evidence unless he has an intuition that it's going to agree with what he's already planned to do. And you know what, people used to practice medicine that way. They would try to think it out.

I can't remember who said this, but somebody said an ounce of history is more important than a pound of logic. And that's true, an ounce of experience, which is what we mean by evidence, experience that has been put together in some kind of scientifically appropriate way, is worth a pound of thinking things through, because what we know about the body is so very limited that you can absolutely do the logical thing and be completely wrong. And actually, this happens to House all the time. In fact, it happens three out of four times. There's always three things that happen before you get to the right answer.

It's so much more predictable in House than life.

Well, fortunately, it's more predictable in life than in House. In fact, most of the time you will get to an ending and the personal will live. I would say patients have a much higher rate of living without complications if they actually went to a real hospital than if they went to House.

There are things I hate about the House character. Some of the things I love in medicine the character of House doesn't value at all. There is nothing more valuable than taking a history. Nothing will give you more important information than taking a history. The older and more seasoned you are, the better you are at getting to what House gets at, the truth that other people were unable to find. And he often does that, comes in and asks one or two questions, and he's been doing it more over recent shows than he did in the early seasons. But you know, history is unbelievably important. The other thing that's really important that they never do is the physical exam.


One of the scripts for this season, I don't know if it's aired yet, have you seen the one where the woman is up at the south pole and becomes quite ill?

No, that hasn't aired yet.

So House insists on doing an extremely close physical exam by video camera but he lets her keep her socks on. And of course, whatever it is she has is underneath. The thing is, if you really valued the physical exam, you know House, he would make her take her socks off. But he doesn't really value the physical exam. And in fact you've never seen him examine a patient.


So there are things about House that rub against my intuitions about what a good doctor is. And certainly I am way nicer to my patients.

That's good to hear, too.

The first season it was on, one of the surgeons came up to me and said "I love House. He gives us surgeons a good name."

House doesn't care about those things. On the other hand, House cares about a lot of things I care about. He cares about thinking. He's not a person who will order a test if he doesn't think they're necessary. Now I personally think they're necessary a whole hell of a lot more frequently than he will, but he recognizes the limitations of testing. So there are lots of great values about him.

Also, House is such a damaged character. He's such an unreliable narrator that his personal affectation of being a total schmuck is belied by the warmth and generosity in his face. Not in the hatched lines of his wonderfully handsome face, but his eyes are marvelously expressive and his mouth is ... I mean, you look at his face and he might be saying the meanest thing ever, and you know that inside there is a deeply caring person. Even if he's not caring about you as an individual, he cares about an idea that happens to be important to you too, which is figuring out what's going on. I think the genius of Hugh Laurie is that he's able to get that duality across.

When I was first talking to Paul Attanasio about the character, he was telling me about the show and he was saying "It's about a doctor who figures out what's going on with very mysterious patients who have unusual diagnoses. The guy's kind of a shmuck, but you know, he tests well, everybody loves him. He's rude and he's obnoxious and he's not very nice to people but everybody loves him, go figure." And in my own mind I thought "Good Lord, I'm not going to be employed for long. I'll be out of Hollywood soon."

I think a lot of people thought that in the beginning.

It would be a different show if Hugh were a different actor. I think he's really an incredible talent and it's because of him and, let me just say, because the writing is extraordinary that I was wrong. It's always moving. Even when I read the scripts, I'm often moved to tears. Just by reading the scripts!

That's unusual – I'd think most doctors would find it difficult to overlook the dramatic license they take but it seems House gets beyond that and many doctors seem to like it.

Some doctors, many doctors, actually like House. It's a dirty secret, I think, but that is the doctor they'd like to be. Not the rudeness, but they'd like to be someone who's completely committed to figuring out what's going on. The biggest difference between every other doctor and House? House has one patient at a time.

It's not that I want to shirk work, but when you're running around and have so many patients who are so sick, the one thing you long for, and have to make room for by not sleeping, is more time to think about what's going on for something that's not obvious. Fortunately, most of the time, most of your patients have common things. That is the definition of common. But not everyone does. Even a regular doctor has cases that defy expectation and have to be figured out. I think the one thing that House represents is how much time we spend trying to figure out the things that don't necessarily make sense or fall into our expectations.

The other thing about House, medicine is all about having an expectation about what a disease looks like, and then when the disease doesn't follow that course, aha, this means there's something else going on here. House is very good at capturing that. It's not something I think a non-physician would pay attention to, but it's something that's very much there. You can tell doctors are involved in the creation of the show. Not me, I didn't put that in there.

House adheres very closely to some things in medicine and I think some of the things it values are also things that doctors value about what they do.

And then of course there are many doctors who are just furious about how it doesn't adhere to medicine as we know it. What can you do, you can't please everybody.

His ethics are a little different from most doctors in real life.

That's one of the things I am least comfortable with.

Do you think he gives a bad impression of the profession?

I think he gives a wrong impression. I think there are very few doctors who set out to kill a patient, even out of mercy, and yet that has happened more than once on House.

I think there are very few doctors who would be willing to force their perspective on a patient. Not only is it against the law, as House has touched on, not only is it assault, but it really goes so deeply against so many of the things we value.

The way House stabs people with syringes when they're not expecting it, it's only because he's such a limited human being that he has to resort to that. The rest of us use our relationship with the patient. The patient wants you to tell them what to do. They want to follow your advice. That's why we have to be so careful about explaining the pros and cons of every side, because they're listening and they're so attuned to trying to figure out what you think they should do.

You wouldn't go to a lawyer who just laid out your options. Obviously your lawyer is an expert and he'd give you an opinion. But he wouldn't just give you one option, and the chances are excellent that you will follow your lawyer's advice.

That's also true of patients. They're dying for you to tell them what to do. Dying to do what you want them to do, because they have faith in you. Otherwise they certainly wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed letting you touch them. I think he does that when it's not necessary. It's never necessary. It just never is necessary.

But what can you say, the guy's a jerk. Doctors shouldn't be impaired when they're taking care of patients, either.

Do you think the show can be effective in bringing up these issues even if you're not on House's side? Do you think the viewer is always on House's side?

I think the viewer is always on House's side, but that's not my concern. I think people have enough real-life experience that they're consistently and accurately able to draw a line between fiction and reality. The specifics of disease, which House often gets wrong, no one cares about that. Period. No one cares about that. But I know that people know that when they're in a hospital, if they don't want something done to them, they say no. I think that's very clear.

Whether they're able to do it is a different thing. I think the authority of doctors is overwhelming sometimes, and people often agree to things they're not sure about because they don't know what else to say. But I think most people know that in a hospital, nobody is going to stab you with a scalpel or a needle just to see what happens. It's not going to happen. I think people understand that.

I think the ways House is outrageous are ways people are familiar with and understand.

Do you hear from patients who are influenced by what they've seen on TV? Do they say "I saw this on House..."

People do say "I saw this on House" but they don't usually think they have it. But on the other hand I do have a whole bunch of colleagues who send me e-mails every time one of their patients walks in with one of my columns as their chief complaint. Because mine are written in a more credible fashion. Really, you'd have to be near death to think you have what any patient of House has.

Was there anything you'd like to add?

I think it's important that there be lots of different perspectives about science on television. Too often, there's only two pictures of the doctor or scientist. One is the benevolent, kind-hearted do-gooder. And that's nice. The other one is evil, cold-blooded villain. I think the great thing about House and other medical shows on television is they show the human side of doctors.

The other thing I like about House is that he often uses observations about real life, sometimes it comes from his own life, sometimes it comes from another case, but it shows that thinking just about the facts is not always the only way to get to an answer. It's often not the best way to get to an answer. So many things have come out of House's life and that is how it works.

There's a great story about Lou Gehrig, who was suffering from ALS and he went undiagnosed for a very long period of time. Nobody could figure out what he had, in part because he was such a healthy substrait that when this debilitating disease hit him, he wasn't as debilitated as other people might have been with the same disease. He went to the Mayo Clinic and when he walked into one doctor's office, the doctor looked at him and said "oh, I know what you have." Didn't touch him, just said I know what you have. Because his own mother had this disease.

Medicine is not this separate category that lives isolated. It's part of a texture of life, and I think one of the great things about House is he shows that interaction between life and medicine.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Q&A on the medicine of House, with Polite Dissent doctor

For The Metaphorical Medicine of House on Blogcritics, I interviewed Polite Scott, the doctor behind the reviews at Polite Dissent. Here's the unedited Q&A of our pre-Christmas e-mail interview:

Where do you think House falls on the accuracy scale compared to other medical shows?

House is probably the most accurate of the current crop of medical television shows, and definitely well above average for the genre.

Do you think it's important that a fictional TV show gets the medicine correct? Why or why not?

It would be nice if television shows were entirely accurate, but that’s not a realistic expectation. Real world medicine and dramatic television medicine are significantly different – real life is rarely as dramatic as television. For example, in real life, tests results often take days to come back and the results are rarely as clear cut as House (or other television shows) make them out to be. It’s true that there is an art to medicine and most of the television shows are good at showing that, but the art is built on a solid foundation of science, and this is the part most television shows have problems with.

Some people say shows like CSI or House, even if they don't get everything right, help to create an atmosphere of respect for science. Others think that some of the erroneous impressions they leave viewers with do more harm than good. Where do you fall in that spectrum?

For most people, these shows are more beneficial than harmful, but there are a significant number of viewers who cannot always discern what is real and what is fiction. This can be especially difficult on some of today’s medical and science dramas, which freely mix fact and fiction. Every doctor has had patients come in complaining of a disease they saw on Grey’s Anatomy or desiring some treatment they saw on House.

I know some people can't watch a fictional show that hits too close to their expertise, because they can't overlook any cheating on the facts. But from your reviews, you seem to appreciate House despite the flaws you find. Do you have lower expectations of what level of accuracy to expect than the can't-watch kind of people, or how do you manage to still enjoy despite seeing (and because of the reviews, I presume even looking for) those flaws each week?

I would say that I am more realistic about what to expect from medical dramas; it’s simply not possible for them to be 100% accurate and remain a finely tuned drama. When I point out errors, especially the smaller ones, it is not so much to detract from House as it is to let my readers know what they should expect in real life (like doctors and nurses wearing eye protection in the operating room).

Medical shows seem to draw out the armchair doctors: non-physician fans who seem to revel in pointing out errors, both real and perceived. Do you think there's a certain element of fun in playing spot the inaccuracy? Or is it a sign that the show is taking people out of the world of the show?

There’s certainly fun -- or at least an enjoyable challenge -- in looking for errors, at least in a certain segment of viewers. One does not get to be a good doctor (or even a mediocre one) without developing a good eye for the details. This nitpicking doesn’t detract from the show, or break the suspension of disbelief because it is possible to watch the show on two different levels: the fan, and the doctor. The Star Trek series has had nit-picking fans for years, there’s even been several “Nitpicker’s Guide to Star Trek” published – but remember that the books are not written by critics, but by fans of the show.

I'm going to throw out a couple of quotes from my interview with House writer Lawrence Kaplow, and wonder about your thoughts on the issues he raised:
Kaplow: "The writers are just having fun, telling stories. But then because it's a medical show, people sometimes are watching it not just to see the characters and who's kissing who, but for answers."
How do you feel about people watching a medical show for answers? And knowing that some do, what kind of responsibility do you think that puts on the writers?

I wish patients wouldn’t watch medical shows for answers, but many do. This has been going on since the first medical shows appeared, and will continue as long as there are medical dramas. It’s something we have to bear in mind, both as doctors and writers. The most important aspect of this for the writers (as far as I’m concerned) is that they not give false hope to patients with a serious disease, and conversely, that they don’t exaggerate the seriousness of other diseases.
Kaplow: "Sometimes we get criticized from doctors who say that would never happen. And the truth is, in your practice that would never happen because this is not the norm, but we have documentation from here backed up to NBC Universal showing that this is possible, this is what can happen. But we can't tell you the 15 steps it took to get there, because that would be really boring."
Do you think some of the inaccuracies people point out are actually medically possible? Do you think accuracy should be sacrificed for drama, or does a medical show needs to think about more than entertainment?

Some of what I call inaccuracies may be possible, or at least theoretically possible. There are thousands of medical articles, studies, and case reports published every month and buried somewhere in there could be anything. Most of the time, if something is unlikely, but possible, I’ll mention it, or if I miss it, one of my readers will catch it.


Later this week I'll post the transcript of my interview with Dr. Lisa Sanders.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The medicine of House

For my latest at Blogcritics, I interviewed Dr. Lisa Sanders, medical advisor for House and author of the Diagnosis column in the New York Times, plus Dr. Scott Morrison of the Polite Dissent House reviews:
  • The Metaphorical Medicine of House
    "You look at his face and he might be saying the meanest thing ever, and you know that inside there is a deeply caring person. Even if he's not caring about you as an individual, he cares about an idea that happens to be important to you too, which is figuring out what's going on." Read more.
I'll post transcripts as usual a little later in the week.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sexy TV by Sexy Canadians

One of the side effects of running the TV, Eh? site is that I can see via the stats what web denizens are interested in when it comes to Canadian television. That inside knowledge’s usefulness as a way of predicting success is questionable: I always used to say that if the Internet audience represented the audience as a whole, Veronica Mars would have been a top 10 hit.

The Best Years is one of the most popular hits on the site, yet it’s a show that didn’t make it past its first season. The stats are skewed by the fact that it was commissioned by The N in the US, so even a comparatively paltry American audience adds significantly to the number of hits. Plus, young skewing shows tend to do better with web surfers. Degrassi doesn’t get a ton of hits despite its similar US pedigree and greater popularity, but the obvious answer is that far more fansites are out there for more substantial discussion of the show.

On the other hand, I don’t know what the ratings are for ReGenesis, but in writing up my article with the scientific consultant, I wanted to scan what regular fans were saying about the show – how much their interest depended on the science – and couldn’t find a fansite or forum through a quick Google search. Yet it’s entering its fourth season, has been sold to many countries (a measure of success, however, that’s become my pet peeve about the peeve-inducing Canadian TV industry), and spawned a presumably successful alternate reality game that depended on actual viewers being invested enough in the show to play along.

But if the web is any indication, this month looks good for Canadian TV success. I’d say it’s easily the most Cancon-filled launch month since I began the site, with CBC premiering four scripted series – The Border, MVP, jPod, and Sophie -- plus the reality show The Week the Women Went; Global introducing The Guard; Citytv entering the fray with Murdoch Mysteries, and CTV and others airing high-profile Canadian miniseries, documentaries and movies (which TV, Eh? doesn’t generally cover).

All the ones I do cover are generating interest behind the scenes at the site. Not as much as something as instantly intriguing as Little Mosque on the Prairie, or with such broad appeal as the big-name reality shows, but more so than any other pre-launch period for scripted shows since I began, LMOtP excepted.

Right now, a couple of weeks before its premiere, The Guard has the definite edge, fuelled it seems by real-life coast guards intrigued at seeing their profession portrayed onscreen (I bet they’ll be just as happy as scientists with the average science show). But also, a fansite popped up months ago, created by fans of the various cast members involved, some of whom I’ve never heard of (that's Steve Bacic in the photo), but who apparently have enough of a worldwide fan base to have sites devoted to them.

It remains to be seen if that translates to viewers, but it gives weight to the theory that a homegrown star system -- which Canada doesn't have to any great degree -- represents a large part of driving people to a show. Of course, if the show itself doesn’t deliver, any amount of David James Elliot or Other Sexy Men I’ve Never Heard Of But Who Have Fansites won’t help. But getting those original eyeballs to sample a show is the first step, because the converse is true: if no one is interested in the first place, worthiness won’t help.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Calling all fangirls and boys

I may not think the skywriting at the Rose Bowl Parade in support of the striking WGA writers was the greatest idea, but one fan put the cost of the last-minute opportunity - around $6500 - on her credit card, with the understanding that she'd be paid back from fan donations and proceeds from an online auction. So far they're far short of that goal, but fans4writers has some great items up for bid (oddly they seem to be going low-tech - no eBay, you have to email with your bid).

House fans, you probably read writer Doris Egan's blog already (if you don't ... go!) and she's especially plugging the House-related items:
  • An Everybody Lies t-shirt with a signed note
  • Lunch with House writer Liz Friedman
  • Lunch with Doris Egan including optional script consultation (or a phone call/email script consultation)
Plus, other items include:
  • Signed scripts from Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Numbers, Law and Order: Criminal Intent (C'mon David Shore, pony up for a signed "Three Stories" and see House fans go nuts)
  • Autographed BSG soundtrack
  • A Two and a Half Men bicycle
  • Autographed poster of James Marsters
  • Signed Serenity photo
  • Something I've never heard of ("Desperation Can Tah prop" - apparently from a Stephen King movie)
  • More to come
Besides cool stuff and helping ensure that good intentions don't go horribly wrong for one fan, any extra funds will be donated to the WGA Solidarity Fund to support industry workers affected by the strike. Check it out and spread the word:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Movies of 2007, with audio

I got a last-minute request to join in on a Blogcritics Radio show this evening, looking back at the movies of 2007. You'd think that would be easy, even last minute, since I was supposed to be talking about the movies I listed in my TV and Movie Obsessions of 2007. How much preparation do you need to talk about something you've already written? Well, replace the "you" with "me" and the answer is ... quite a lot, actually. Mock away.

I can't voluntarily listen to myself (yes, that means editing the TV, eh? podcasts and transcribing interviews is murder) but I can guarantee some incoherence and giggling. Not because I was drunk, but because I was ... talking. That's just me. Remember the brain disconnecting from the mouth thing? Anyway, I come in at about 15 minutes in.

Someone called me a "mad Canadian" on introduction (it's a thing ... another writer on the site regularly gets called a beady-eyed Canadian) so I took the opportunity to plug a Canadian film that almost made my list: Sarah Polley's Away From Her. I explained its bleakness was my reason for not including it in the end. It's a powerful movie, a beautiful movie, but not an easy movie to watch, so I picked movies I purely enjoyed more. I had to (but didn't really) do some fancy footwork to explain why I included the not-a-laugh-riot Atonement, then. Did I mention the incoherence?

I did go on to ramble a bit about Once, Juno, and Atonement, but I figure now is a good opportunity to give an honourable mention to some other movies I might have listed if I'd done a top 6 instead of a top 3 (keeping in mind the caveat that I haven't seen nearly enough to consider a "best of" list).

Waitress was another one I considered, but it wasn't quite weighty enough to stick with me through the year. I do seem to have a thing for the pie-makers, but Keri Russell was terrific, and Adrienne Shelley's script and performance was heartbreaking, both on screen and for the offscreen tragedy.

The Namesake is a lovely, lush film with moments that still play in my mind months later. I had no real reason to review it - no free screener, in other words - but it compelled me to write it out, a feeling I get about few things, and I'm not even sure what it means, since I didn't feel equally compelled to write full reviews of any of the other movies I've mentioned.

I can't remember seeing a 2007 movie I didn't somewhat enjoy, though perhaps I'm blocking them out, and of course I self-select as a movie critic can't. I do keep negatively comparing Knocked Up to Juno, but I don't mean to suggest that I didn't like the earlier movie, just that I thought it was very much overpraised with very much not well written female characters -- not such a big deal in certain movies, but in a movie about an unplanned pregnancy, pretty important.

I had fun with The Simpsons Movie, even though I haven't watched the series regularly since the Paleolithic era. The Lookout was quietly intriguing. Hairspray, Stardust, all good DVD choices.

Some day I'll write a quick post about the BlogTalkRadio thing they use for their radio shows - it has its plusses and minus for podcasty type geeks, but for now, check out the site if you're interested (it's not part of Blogcritics, it's a separate service).

Q&A with Dr. Aled Edward of ReGenesis

I spoke with Dr. Aled Edwards, science advisor for the Canadian sci-fi show ReGenesis, for the Blogcritics article TV Show ReGenesis Generates Interest in Science, which incorporates information from a public forum, too.

But for more of what Dr. Edwards had to say, here's the transcript of our talk:

DK: What has been your involvement with ReGenesis?

I'm the director of a genome project, a large biology project funded by Canada, Sweden, the Wellcome Trust, and a pharmaceutical company. Our mandate, and the reason we get funded, is to place fundamental information about people into the public domain with no patents. So the project is really about making information freely available. Because we do it on such a large scale, we delve into the policy realm in which we're – I wouldn't say combating, but there's always a tension around should you patent something and make money off it or it is better to be free. We fall into the "it should be free" camp.

Because of the policy ramifications, I spend a bit of my time doing public outreach, because to understand the complexities of whether information should be kept proprietary or free or the value of the information or why Canadian taxpayers pay me to do it, people need to at least be familiar with the words. So I spend a lot of my time doing public outreach.

But you don't normally talk to the majority of Canadians because they just tune out when they hear the word science. So I figured I'd bait and switch. Get them watching TV and before they knew it, they might even learn something. That's why I did it. So I helped the guys do their stories on the precondition that they stick to as much reality as possible.

None of these scientific programs are ultimately the truth, because we have boring jobs. I sit on my ass all day in front of the computer. The action takes place in the head and you don't see anything. There's no shooting and stuff. But it's fun for people to start to realize what we do, and ReGenesis is the most accurate scientific drama out there, no holds barred, for sure.


Well not only accurate in the science but accurate in the way the people act. If an experiment takes five hours, the writers aren't allowed to take a shortcut and say it took one hour.

That's got to be hard on them.

They tell me it's an incredibly difficult job. The writers tell me, because they're not scientists, it's the most difficult job they've ever had, because the constraints of the scientific facts definitely affect the kinds of stories they can write. A lot of television writing is formulaic, and it's so easy to fall back into the trite stories that you know people will watch, you know people will like. This is a much greater challenge, but it's a much nobler challenge, I think.

Why do you think it's important that fictional TV gets the science right?

It's all part and parcel of getting the public familiar with science, familiar with the scientific method, familiar with uncertainty.

I hold up global warming as the biggest failure to communicate in the history of mankind. It was pretty darn clear with high probability 30 years ago that this was happening. There were certainly uncertainties in the scientific community about the rate at which it was happening, but as time went on, it became more and more certain. And it took Al Gore, right?

We'd known about it, but we were ineffective communicators as a scientific community, or the media didn't have the appropriately receptive ears. They didn't understand. They couldn't interpret uncertainty. They thought uncertainty, therefore nobody agrees. It wasn't uncertain that it was happening, sure it was uncertain the extent to which it was happening, the degree of some of the downstream effects – is the earth going to rise by a degree or a degree and a half, is the ice going to melt in 2030 or 2080? That's uncertain. But the fact that it was happening was not uncertain, or that man was doing it.

We really did a shitty job of communicating, and part of that is educating ourselves as a scientific community in how to communicate, part of it is educating the media on how to listen to scientists, because we always use waffle-y words. "Suggest.""It suggests that...." We don't want to be caught dead saying "it is," because until it's absolutely proven we won't say that. "The data suggests that the earth is warming and that man is the cause." And the media will go, "uh oh, 'suggest,' that means they can't be sure, that means it's uncertain, that means it may not be happening."

We did 20 years of that. In large part because it was a community that doesn't use the same words, a community that has challenges speaking with one another, and so public awareness is a darned important part of any scientist's job.

And yet on TV, on CSI, no one ever gets it wrong. It's great that it's increasing awareness for science, but, I don't know if it's an urban myth, but juries are now expecting certainty.

I've heard that, that there's a CSI effect on juries.

I don't know if it's true or not because I haven't looked into it ...

[Laughs] So as a scientist, you can't say for certain.

Exactly. And if it is true, you can understand why. They always get it right on TV. [In real life,] the policemen come and give their testimony and there's a little bit of uncertainty and whoa, why can't you get it right? That's a minor issue. That ain't global warming, death of the earth kind of story, but it's indicative of the larger issue of the world in which we live.

So I've taken it upon myself to do a small part and try to reach a community out there and show that science is risks. We don't know the answers. Everything we think is a hypothesis that we have to prove.

And the writers, I spend a lot of time changing the words in those scripts. David, the lead character, will say "I know the answer." Well, we never say that. So we changed that script to "My hypothesis is..." or something like that. The writers don't like it because it sounds so waffle-y, but that's how we talk.

So do you get final say? Do they always listen to you?

I miss some stuff because I'm busy, but for the most part I do have final say. If I say "it cannot happen like that," the guys will change it, to their credit.

Do you find it difficult to watch other television programs like CSI or House, then, because of the dramatic license they take?

I don't watch those shows. I don't watch much TV at all. They're kind of neat ... well, let me put it another way. When I watch those shows, I turn off my scientific brain. I say I'm watching mindless entertainment here. Because if I put on my scientific brain, I'd get upset. So I just watch it and think this is not science, this is not medicine, this is just television and I'm going to watch it with my brain off and sit with the kids and talk about their day while the TV is on.

That sounds like a good coping mechanism.

Well, the House thing. The guy always gets it right. There's not a human on the planet .... It's almost like watching a cartoon, where Batman or Superman or House is the same. When I watch Superman, I don't get upset: "Hey, men can't fly!" You obviously treat it in the light in which you want to.

Do you think TV can be effective in making people think about scientific issues that should get attention?

I don't think so. I mean, it's not going to be a panacea, that's for sure. There definitely has to be downstream work, that's for sure. The use of what we did in Vancouver -- I don't know, you'd be better to comment than I -- one could have watched, for example, the use of predictive genomes to guess what a person's behaviour was going to be like, it's one thing watching it on TV, it's another thing sitting around an evening with a coffee or a couple of beers talking about it.

That would be a typical conversation for us scientists in the evening. When you go out, apart from how the Blue Jays are doing, if we were to talk about science that's the kind of stuff we talk about, "what do you think?" Because there certainly is no answer but it's fun to talk about. Unfortunately for the public's perspective, unfortunately for them, this will be the reality in three years, so you can either not ignore it, or have it slam into your face in three years.

Because I can promise you, you're going to have your DNA sequenced before you're dead. Just think about that. There's your genetic code, and people can look at it and make predictions about you. It's going to be weird, but it's going to be true.

Do you think if people see that on ReGenesis now, after the show is over, are they actually thinking about it?

No. That's what we're trying to accomplish in these follow-on events, is to make people see this isn't like a TV show that's science fiction, this is science reality, and let's just talk about what it means. And you saw what happens.

I had a great time, because I walked around the tables. In Hamilton, the public to scientist ratio was better, in my opinion. One or two scientists per table, and the rest members of the community, and oh, the conversations were fantastic. "Did you know the smallpox genome was freely available?" You should have seen their faces when they were told that. I think if we can organize these follow-on fora, that would be fun. But you know, we went to Vancouver and a hundred people came. Well, that's not that many. So I don't know if there is a better way.

Jay Ingram was saying, is documentary better? I don't know if it was in Vancouver or Hamilton he was quoted as saying people are always coming up to him and saying "oh, Daily Planet, I love it." Then when he asks them "what show did you like best," they blank. They don't remember any of the details, they're just sort of in and out.

He said that in Vancouver; he said people aren't learning facts, they're learning an appreciation.

Isn't that stunning?

It is. That surprised me.

I'm hoping that in a discussion format like we had that evening, people will remember stuff now because they've actually thought about it, and chatted about it, and heard other people's opinions, and that is a much better way to learn than listening to a fact or watching it mindlessly on the TV.

What else do you do for outreach? Do you do these forums frequently, or are there other components?

We've only done two and they were pilot projects, so we're really looking for feedback from people like you who went. I mean, if we did these in various places would people like them? And one could even film it, and people could hear debates on TV. It's kind of neat because it's not scientists talking, it's scientists arguing with each other, which is the natural course of science. When you take things where you don't know the answer, you debate. So anyway, we might do that. I speak often to high schools and speak everywhere I can in public fora. I'm speaking at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research evening session. But you know, it's only a certain type of person who's going to come and listen to a scientist come and talk in the evening.

Yeah, I felt like a big nerd for wanting to go to the forum, but the room was full so it felt great.

And the Vancouver session, for example, that's much less nerdy than if you go to the evening sessions, where the average age of the audience is 85.

Not quite reaching the young folk there.

Exactly right, and it's the young folk whose lives are going to be most affected by this stuff. So that's why the TV thing, in Hamilton and Vancouver we used the draw of television and personalities to bring people there and then talk science and they realize man, that's kind of fun. That's why we were trying to link the art and the science together, because they're both about creativity and they're both about using your brain.

So you did have fun? It's important for me to know that.

I did, I had a lot of fun, I'm a bit of a science nerd.

Were there other community people at your table or were they mostly scientists?

There were other community people. Most of them seemed to be students or people who had a science background though. I was there for the TV side of it – I run a website to promote Canadian television – so I was there for the ReGenesis side of it, but I seemed to be the only one I talked to who was there because of the TV part of it. There were a lot of people associated with Genome BC.

We asked them to make sure there was one scientist at each table, and then all the scientists came because of the TV. It's kind of cool, you know, we never meet actors and producers and directors.

It makes it sexy.

Exactly right, so that's what brought the scientists out, let me tell you. But like I said, in Hamilton the ratio was much better. We had about 300 people there, about 50-70 scientists and the rest were people in the public. I told you I roamed around, and the conversations were far reaching and really interesting.

I found the discussion fascinating, things I wouldn't have thought of. I watched the clips with my own perspective and then got to hear other people's and think, oh, yeah, I can see that too.

That's exactly the point.

See, I learned.