Saturday, September 30, 2017

Subbed Television

Stories make the world go round. With binge watching a thing, viewers are looking further, to scripted TV shows beyond their cultural lexicon. Subbed TV has become more common—and more diverse. The web globalizes audiences, allowing viewers to reach past the scope of local networks. Subs are available not only in languages like English, Mandarin, or Spanish, but also in local dialects. (Side note: Star Trek Discovery is translated to Klingon. Out of this world!)

I grew up watching subbed television from around the globe. My dad loved introducing my bro and I to international productions (remember Oshin?). Reading while viewing seems easier if introduced in childhood. Font and speed are also relevant, especially to dyslexic viewers. Nowadays even the speed of subs can be adjusted.

Many are surprised by how much television can vary across countries/cultures. The entire structure of a one-hour drama can change (whether serialized or episodic). Screen time given to subplots, pace and editing, closure or lack of, flashbacks, style of dialogue, lighting, camera angles... So many elements you didn't realize were either open to experimentation, or evolved differently in another country's television scene.

What is lost relying on subs? Probably nuance, in regard to the script. An episode subbed by two different people can offer distinct translations in terms of word choice and overall mood. Since you’re getting another person’s interpretation, subtext may accidentally filtered out. The focus is more on helping you follow the narrative, especially if the goal is to sub quickly and keep up with the country of origin's schedule and subsequent online chatter.

In today's world where people read less, and are less worried (especially younger generations) about the structure of sentences, subbing can often be quite rough—especially unfunded fan sub projects. If grammar issues are a pet hate, well, you've been warned!

Every now and again viewers come across what I call cultural subber/s who will change the viewing experience. This person (or team) explain aspects often lost in translation: references to sport, ancient texts, pop songs, urban legends, popular commercials, childhood games, foods... Completely altering the way an episode is perceived.

Japanese television can be prone to clever wordplay. Korean characters may switch between formal and informal ways of addressing each other; important to the tone of the scene but rarely translated. Swedish procedurals are often so intelligently subtle that you might miss plot aspects if used to blunter storytelling styles.

And of course the world's cultures have differing attitudes to gender, violence, relationships, age, sex, work, family, death, emotion—and everything inbetween. Probably the most glaring relate to the presentation of sex. On some shows it's openly gratuitous, others avoid all sexual content, or infer it showing minimal skin. European TV is known for a style more akin to casual realism but obviously that changes from country to country.

America generally equates violence and cynicism with "good" TV, and gentler emotions with lesser quality outings, especially if the plot has a romantic focus (arguably as a result of stereotypical gender associations and dismissive attitudes to traditionally "feminine" emotions—but that's a whole other blog).

These kind of unconscious attitudes aren't global, so television from another culture can be intriguing and open your eyes to many ways of telling an entertaining visual story. It's best, though, to understand your own (entertainment) prejudices, and try for more of an open mind when exploring the (TV) world.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Future of Scripted TV

Scripted television is in the process of adapting to survive an ever changing entertainment arena. The gap between the viewer and the product is shrinking, and to remain financially viable television needs to keep audiences engaged. But how?

Social media is in a sense a blessing and a curse for “traditional” TV shows. On the positive front, various platforms allow a new level of audience engagement (more on that later).

On the other hand, a penchant for live videos has made many viewers watch fewer scripted shows, clicking on videos instead. Vlogger numbers are showing people, especially the younger demographic, love the immediacy of platforms like YouTube and Instagram—meaning social media has become both supporter, and competitor.

Social media allows audiences to become emotionally engaged with characters, storylines, actors, or all of the above: think fans, stans, and ships.  (FYI shipping means wanting characters in a romantic relationship.)

If a story arc takes an unpopular turn or a ship is “sunk” (ie characters are romantically matched with other people) the ratings backlash can be vicious. Audiences today are emotionally involved, as well as feeling more entitled in terms of having an impact on storylines.

Much of scripted television is pre-produced so adjusting the plot (before the next season) is problematic. More TV shows are taking feedback into account and adjusting scripts while in production: not so much major plots, but subplots, character popularity, and subsequent allocation of screentime.

This is called fan service and (obviously) the industry has a mixed view of the process, as it means relinquishing some control of the script direction. In reality, taking audience reactions into account makes sense; just a subplot change can mean the difference between cancellation and renewal, especially as many networks no longer allow time for a show to find its feet.

Some web series’ have experimented with interactive viewing, a little like Choose Your Own Adventure books of the past. The idea is to shoot the next episode with plot changes based on feedback (similar in a way to reality shows and their “voting” systems). Perhaps this is worth considering, even if it requires changes to the current standard production model?

Likewise, the ever-growing popularity of fan fiction has shown people love offshoot stories and often can’t get enough of a particular (and sometimes minor) character. Rather than creating entire shows—spin-offs are risky business—why not follow the short form path of fan fiction, and produce a series of specials, whether one episode, or five, concentrating on these characters? The current TV format doesn’t fully utilise cast popularity. (I know this is done with webisodes, but the drop in production quality is the problem: people need to see the same style of shooting/editing that they see in the original series.)

A recent trend is dropping full seasons of a show for “binge” watching. This draws large numbers in the initial period, but ongoing engagement is lost. Shows that release one episode a week benefit from bloggers and recappers who are likely to cover a season of a binge show in a single post.

Yes, audiences desire immediacy, but they also have short attention spans, so without constant reminders of a series, interest can plummet. I wonder if statistically the second season of a show dropped en bulke performs as well as the second season of a weekly series?

Another relevant aspect is, of course, profit, and the integration of marketing. Advertising is a necessary source of income, and with the “commercial break” becoming less tolerated, those streaming scripted TV shows have had to become cleverer when it comes to pushing merchandise.

Product placement is a classic advertising option. In the past it had to be subtle, but in today’s tech-savvy market, social media celebrities push products as they don’t have a network structure to rely on advertorially, meaning the younger demographic likely find promotion less offensive.

What if instead of inserting commercials, or trying to work a few products into the scenes of scripted TV shows, most of the props and costuming were available to purchase? Consider a streaming platform that included links for viewers: if a dress, a chair, or a lipgloss appealed, the viewer could swipe, and have a purchase window/link pop open. Wouldn’t that be a less invasive form of advertising, since these elements have to appear anyway?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reflections of, and on Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars, in essence, held up a mirror to society’s perception of teenage girls. Beneath the outrageous plots, the series proved to be a unique platform exploring cyber bullying, teen sexuality, and myriad interpretations of female empowerment in modern America.

How do you sum up seven seasons of a show in one blog post? Pretty Little Liars was an interesting, hypnotic, and addictive series, occasionally a hot mess, sometimes sublime, and often a stunning feat of visual storytelling.

The show that inspired text dread.
“Hyperreality” has always been a catch cry of the show. Teen life in the made up town of Rosewood was both familiar and unfamiliar, like a strange dream: viewers were immersed, and then constantly saturated, in the surreal, fantastical intensity.

The story kicked off with the blackmail of our leads via a cyber-bully known as “A” one year after their friend Alison disappeared. Each girl has something to hide, and A manipulates our leads like puppets… But when Alison’s body shows up the “game” becomes dangerous.

Sometimes "A" went for old school over tech.
Over the course of the series more than one A is revealed, but to be honest, these twists seem somewhat irrelevant: the power of the show lies in the journey.

At each step the “liars”,  as the group of girls are known, chose between loyalty to friends, family, or lovers; considered how far they’re go to protect a secret or expose the truth; and decided who to believe—and who to lie to.

(Round of applause from Team Sparia.)

The adults of Rosewood, flawed by their suburban mindset, excel at ethically questionable choices and distasteful compromises to protect their concept of family and more importantly, reputation. Most men in Rosewood were revealed to be either incompetent, corrupt, weak, predatory—or all of the above.

Moms Of PLL, the spin-off we're all waiting for.
There were as many references to classic film and literature as there were to pop culture. Pretty Little Liars wasn’t afraid to be clever, and celebrated intelligent women, but it also explored the pitfalls and false safety that came from relying on superior intellect: the hubris of a high IQ and an arguably low EIQ.

Perception is key, and at times PLL felt like a kaleidoscope. Twist the lens a little, and you could see another perspective. Being “strong” was open to interpretation. Emily and Hanna’s versions differed greatly from, say, Mona's and Charlotte's.

When you and your friends suddenly become bridal models.
The character of Spencer was arguably the leader of the liars. It could also be said she qualified as somewhat of a bully. Deciding on a culprit, she pursued and persecuted with zealous. And while remorseful when her conclusions proved wrong, she was just as rabid with the next person in her sights.

The cool thing was you could throw ideas like this around online, and have myriad reactions come back at you because the show existed in a relatively new mental zone: the fandom got to enjoy a TV show in an era of rampant social media interaction spanning podcast, recaps and fan fiction. You were never alone in watching Pretty Little Liars—the Internet made sure of that.

Let's be honest: pre-disappearance Alison
was a hella scary mean girl.
The leads’ burgeoning sexuality was explored from a few angles. Some of the girls experimented with employing sexuality as a manipulative tool. Others were judged based on their love lives, persecuted via rumor and speculation.

And of course the series showed that love leads to vulnerability as much as empowerment. An ex-boyfriend murdered Maya, and other supporting characters like Shana and Ian were driven by love to try and harm the liars, while A uses the liars’ lovers to manipulate them.

(Good gasp face was a prerequisite for a role on this show btw.)

But it wasn't all hugs and roses. Aria’s relationship with her predatory teacher Ezra Fitz divided fans. (The decision to pair the characters with their original high school love interests by the series finale, including said teacher, was another divisive choice.)

Rarely has a show soared so high, tripped over its own feet, picked itself up, and reached for the stars again—only to repeat the process. Part of the erratic quality was due to the epic amount of episodes (totaling 160). This meant an array of writers, speedy production, and the problem of guest actors being unavailable as their success soared, cutting off storylines. (And viewers can only guess at network input as the show’s popularity grew.)

How Jason made it through this show
sane remains the greatest mystery.
At it’s worst, PLL stumbled with characters who weren’t consistent in their behavior, dropped narratives, a problematic presentation of transgender character Charlotte, occasionally romanticized presentation of mental illness (including the psychiatric hospital that was more like a bed and breakfast from Twin Peaks), and got out of narrative corners they’d written themselves into by employing outlandish soapie plot devices.

Cece/Charlotte loved a good game.
Alison’s return from the faux-dead was difficult because the character had reached mythic proportions in the mind of viewers. Likewise the infamous time jump, that saw the story move forward a few years, was extremely problematic—the evolution of the characters appeared to have stalled, or even backtracked, in their years away from the screen.

Post time jump liars were a tad boozy.
But at its best, PLL had audiences on the edge of their seat with stories both diabolical and touching, offering interesting and multi-faceted social commentary, and complex female characters who (mostly) made brave, clever choices in the face of adversity.

Who could forget Emily coming out to her dad Wayne, or her mom Pam’s difficulties adjusting? Or the moment the audience learned of Hannah’s history with an eating disorder? Or discovering the perfect Spencer had a drug problem? Or realizing the long-term, deeply damaging impact Alison’s bullying had on Mona and Lucas?

Wayne ftw.
The hypocrisy of the deeply flawed and wealthy Hastings family was riveting. Ashley exchanging sexual favors with a corrupt cop to keep her daughter’s criminal record clean was thought provoking. The familial isolation of Caleb and Tobey, and their subsequent self-sufficiency and emotional vulnerability was well written.

The Sweet Team
And visually let’s not forget the wild styling and stunning direction (the show had a darkness to it that wasn’t just metaphorical)—not to mention an actual “noir” episode. Pretty Little Liars managed to straddle the commercial requirements of being on a relatively conservative network while pushing the boundaries of standard teen TV. (Kudos on the soundtrack too.)

Remember Ravenswood?
Because empowerment was a core theme, one of the most disturbing (yet enthralling) elements of the series was a lust for control, and the resulting dehumanization. The mysterious A treated the liars like dolls, playing with their lives, and at one point built a life-sized dollhouse, complete with replica bedrooms, in which to imprison them. Dolls, masks, magic tricks, and illusions… Pretty Little Liars was constantly upping its symbolic game.

Like a never-ending whodunit, the series piled on the mysteries and crimes. Life for the liars was full of twisted adventures, usually with A at the core. “This enemy is everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” said resident hacker Caleb of the elusive troublemaker, while Emily baldly stated, “A is a terrorist.”

The show was fuelled by choice and consequence but the guiding light was that the often tested bond between the young women  proved unbreakable. The liars’ litany of mistakes is breathtaking, yet their character flaws and weaknesses were acknowledged and accepted by the rest of the crew. Female friendship was given more screen time than romantic love.

It's Tippy!
So, time to say vale PLL. Goodbye to wildly inappropriate cocktail funeral attire, and fantastical storylines that included clues from Tippy the talking bird. To a town that had more social events than New York City. To a show that even when it momentarily failed, failed with flair. To Mona, one of my favorite female characters ever on television.

Such an interesting woman.
To a place where the years and seasons never seemed to follow the laws of the universe. To infinite procedural red herrings. To countless examples of awe-inspiring attempts at emotional manipulation. To the endless employment of popular plot devices, from secret adoptions, psychics, hidden tunnels, unearthed bodies, infidelity, and evil twins (‘ello Alex).

Hats off to the hard work and imagination of a cast and crew who took the original premise and ran with it to entertaining extremes. Thanks for showing that a group of teenage girls were capable of not just surviving persecution, but fighting back, while taking control of their futures—with the help of their friends.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Circle: Two Worlds Connected Is Must-See Sci-Fi

(Please note this post includes references to events that
take place in episodes 1-6 of Circle: Two Worlds Connected.)
The best science fiction marries emotion with speculation. South Korean TV series Circle: Two Worlds Connected taps into one of humanity’s basic fears; that science will tamper with the parameters of personality.

Thematically, science fiction television transcends language barriers and cultural differences because every society is curious, if not concerned, about the future, and the unexplained.

An uncomfortable relationship between tech, emotions, and memory is a popular trope in science fiction. Stories exploring the use—or abuses—of advancements in technology are more successful if the audience is tied empathetically to the characters.

Circle: Two Worlds Connected has a winning formula with dominant themes of memory, identity, and family. That most erratic variable—love—usually ruins the equation at some point in scifi, because audiences like to see the warmth of humanity trumping the dispassion of science.

Circle: Two Worlds Connected utilizes the tricky narrative tool of a split timeline. The first half of each episode is set in 2017, the second in a dystopian 2037. The risk with this kind of storytelling structure is events in the present seem futile because viewers have a window into a bleak future.

Creating an immediate emotive link with the audience is paramount. We know what our leads are trying to do isn’t going to work, but we need to care enough to keep watching.

The pilot begins with a flashback to a childhood trauma experienced by two brothers in 2007, so the strength of their bond, even as children, is established. As adults, differing perspectives on that pivotal event creates an ever-widening rift, but their co-dependency persists.

Supernatural has shown a TV series can run for years on the fuel of dysfunctional familial relations. In Circle: Two Worlds Connected one brother studies neuroscience while the other investigates an alien conspiracy. The way the story unfolds aligns us firmly with the “sane” one: until it doesn’t anymore…

The present day timeline offers the possibility of an ageless alien and a number of associated mysteries, most notably the disappearance of our leads’ father. Clues also suggest experiments focusing on memory manipulation are causing student deaths on campus, till now viewed as suicides.

 In the future storyline, aka 2037, Normal Earth is polluted and the rich live in Smart Earth, a city boasting no crime. Smart Earth citizens have chips inserted in their necks, and yes that sense of misgiving specific to mind-control storylines is probably kicking in about now. (Plus the Smart Earth law keepers wear a lot of white: if there’s one thing sci-fi has taught me, it’s never trust the clean!)

At first, we’re unclear as to how the characters from the past connect to those in the future: memories have been manipulated, a violation revealed by the hacker Bluebird. But why? And by whom? How exactly did the Smart B system evolve? We’re also told the brothers became Missing Persons at some point during the time jump, so with each episode, our dread intensifies.

The show feels claustrophobic, no matter how spacious the setting, because the narrative is taking us inside the minds of the characters. Most are lost, searching for a person or particular truths, or looking to hide from memories. The show is seeped in desperation, making each episode increasingly compelling.

A number of characters in Circle: Two Worlds Connected are focused on the tie-in between memory and self. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can transform memories into tools of self-harm that impinge on decision-making and a person’s ability to function. But this scenario wonders if the removal or suppression of harmful memories is potentially more problematic?

Memory is the recall of experiences, but how the mind stores them and how the present day self views them, impacts their power. Are you really “yourself” when pieces of the puzzle that make up your psyche have been removed?

You may be at peace… But are you truly whole?

Scientific knowledge can create a delusional, God-like mindset, and that problematic perspective lies at the heart of the conflicts here: those empowered by knowledge are abusing that power. Deciding the psychological needs of citizen is a slippery slope, especially when you don’t gain consent.

Smart Earth seems a metaphor for humanity’s timeless response to complex societal issues: use wealth to hide from them. The story shows a safe haven can prove to be a type of prison if those in control have no qualms tampering with your mind—for your own good.

The drama is only twelve episodes long. South Korean television generally opts for a single season series, and as a result shows achieve a level of sustained intensity often missing from Western dramas. No story elements are held over for future seasons; the production team throws everything into the shorter format.

South Korean television is also fabulous at capturing emotive moments; the camera documents myriad emotions flitting across the actors' faces. South Korean actors excel at communicating complex wave of feeling just with their eyes, so prepare to be enthralled.

At the drama’s halfway point I’d guessed some reveals, and missed others. Even now, there are a few directions the story could go, and the set-up makes many plot options viable. I’m equally curious about the past and the future: how did the brothers lose each other? What sequence of events brought them to this tragic situation?

And the big question: who is Byul? Is the woman who mysteriously appeared and doesn’t age, an alien? Or are we seeing a series of clones? Can we even trust the brothers’ childhood memories? Can we trust anyone’s recall at this point?

What is really going on?

Circle: Two Worlds Connected is what brilliant sci-fi is supposed to be, packed with complex characters, exploring many ideas related to our relationship with tech, seeping paranoia and subterfuge, engaging and enthralling the audience with intelligent storytelling. The plot is beautifully crafted, the acting is incredible, and the cinematography is stunning. What more could you ask for?