Cowboy Bebop

Alex Suskind with an appreciation of Cowboy Bebop, now on Blu-ray.

Set in 2071, Bebop imagines a dystopian future where earth has been irrevocably damaged due to the creation of a “stargate,” forcing humans to evacuate the planet and create colonies across the solar system. The result is a galaxy of lawlessness, where crime lords rule and cops pay bounty hunters (often referred to as cowboys) to handle some of the grunt work. People drink in dive bars. Income inequality is terrible. Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons.

This confluence of cultures is what’s helped the show sustain influence over the last decade-plus. Countless filmmakers, animators, musicians—they’ve all been drawn into the orbit of Watanabe’s space-age cowboy western. Take Quentin Tarantino. The animated sequence from his 2003 film Kill Bill Vol. 1 is straight Bebop, with blood gushing out of each wound like an infinite geyser. There’s also filmmaker and future Star Wars spin-off director Rian Johnson, whose cult 2005 thriller Brick takes a good chunk of inspiration from the Japanese series, with its snappy, noir-friendly dialogue and overall sense of dread. Other famous fans of the series include the late Robin Williams, as well as science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, who wrote an essay in 2011 praising Bebop, comparing to another critically acclaimed space Western, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (Indeed, both series have strong female characters, a melting pot of cultures, and killer soundtracks.)

It's perhaps my favorite anime series of all time, and any time someone mentions that they like Firefly, I tell them to check out Cowboy Bebop, which is, IMHO, far superior.

When I first started watching the series, I had to purchase DVDs from other regions off of eBay and play them on a region-free DVD player, that's how much I craved new installments. Kids these days don't realize how easy they have it when it comes to binge-watching (my first experience binge-watching was tracking down the first two seasons of the X-Files; I posted a request to a newsgroup and found some saint who accepted a box of blank VHS tapes from me, dubbed every episode of the first two seasons, labeling each tape with titles and episode numbers, and mailed the whole lot back to me. If only I had kept those tapes. If I could reconnect with that guy, I would send him a bottle of bourbon or something.)

The economics of South Korean TV

Fascinating article on the unabashed leveraging of product placement to finance the ever popular South Korean TV dramas.

While details of product placement deals are not disclosed, industry sources say exposure on popular shows costs at least 100 million won ($96,000) and much more for a hit drama featuring A-list stars with a regional following.

The biggest spender of all is Samsung — the world’s largest technology firm by revenue — which sponsors around two thirds of all domestically-produced soap operas, according to Kim Si-hyun, head of 153 Production, a major PPL agency in Seoul.

“It’s a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics like smartphones, computers, cameras, air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end,” Kim said.

Commodification of the dramas begins at the earliest stage of production, once a script writer has produced a basic story line listing characters and their professions.

The workplaces that will feature in the show are offered for sale to real companies looking for exposure.

According to Kim from 153 Production, the workplace of a lead character can go for between 500 million and 1 billion won.

That was how the female lead in “The Heirs” — a teenage romance that was a huge hit in Asia last year — ended up working for Mango Six.
 

More of note within, including just how effective such placement can be.

The South Korean TV industry is a machine. In the time a US studio takes to make one 24 episode season of television, South Korea will have produced two or more 30 to 50 hour K-dramas. Some of that relies on some brutal filming schedules as I've heard from some of my film school classmates that have worked in Korea, but it also comes from a heavy reliance on story archetypes, simplified lighting setups, and a stable of goto actors that cut down casting lead times. It's a formula, but thus far it hasn't exhausted its millions of devoted viewers throughout Asia.

The politics of Game of Thrones

I tried to read the Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin and couldn't get through much more than one book. The prose is rough, functional at best. 

The TV series, though, I love. The first book ended up reading like an adaptation of the first season of the series, so closely did the two hew to each other back then. It made sense to me to find out Martin had worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for much of the 80's and part of the 90's.

What Martin does do well, and what makes Game of Thrones more fascinating than much of the fantasy series out there, is delve deeply into realpolitik. Characters win or lose not so much based on whether they are good or bad in character as whether they're the smartest player in the political arena, the so-called "game of thrones." Thus we see many characters killed off in defiance of audience expectations. That's the part of the series that I love the most, beyond the high and increasing production values (a noticeable increase in quality after season one), beautiful locations (refreshing in this day and age of cartoonish digital backdrops to see the real world serve as the backdrop for so much of the series), and fun performances (there are some weak links, like Danaerys, but most of the lead performances are strong).

Martin also manages to challenge the audience's desire for clean moral judgments (with the exception of characters like Joffrey who seem horrific through and through).

Much of this comes out in a really good interview of Martin in Rolling Stone.

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly. 

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.

...

Early on, one critic described the TV series as bleak and embodying a nihilistic worldview, another bemoaned its "lack of moral signposts." Have you ever worried that there's some validity to that criticism? 

No. That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it's moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic.

Some of your most contemptible characters are also among the story's greatest truth-tellers. One of the most riveting moments in the TV series took place in the Battle of Blackwater episode, which you wrote the script for, when Sandor says to Sansa, "The world was built by killers, so you'd better get used to looking at them." 

Truth is sometimes hard to hear. Two of the central phrases are true, but they are not truths that most human beings like to contemplate. Winter is coming and Valar morghulis – all men must die. Mortality is the inescapable truth of all life . . . and of all stories, too.

The overrated True Detective

At least based on the general critical reaction I've seen on the web, by far the most overrated show on TV is HBO's True Detective, so I'm somewhat too heartened that the great Emily Nussbaum stabs the show repeatedly with her quill, leaving it wounded and bleeding, if not dead (the finale has yet to air).

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

This aspect of “True Detective” (which is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) will be gratingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a new cable drama get acclaimed as “a dark masterpiece”: the slack-jawed teen prostitutes; the strippers gyrating in the background of police work; the flashes of nudity from the designated put-upon wifey character; and much more nudity from the occasional cameo hussy, like Marty’s mistress, whose rack bounces merrily through Episode 2. Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.
 

Also odd is that everyone is raving about Matthew McConaughey's performance. He does the most he can with dialogue that is largely hokum. I've rewatched entire scenes from the show with the subtitles turned on just to see if the script needs some decanting to release its profundity, but no, it is some hard-boiled, imitation Cormac McCarthy nothingness. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart is actually the more compelling character both on the page and on the screen, largely because he's the type of actor who never seems to be taking himself too seriously, even when he's in a grim serial killer drama, and even if that show is one of the more self-important shows in recent memory.

Marty may be a hothead and a philandering fool, but it all feels grounded. McConaughey's Rust Cohle feels like, as Nussbaum phrases it, a very conventional TV trope, the “heretic with a heart of gold,” except in this case he has the verbosity of a TV writer in love with his own voice.

Not to say the show can't evoke a mood. The clenched, discordant music, the languorous camera moves and unusually low number of cuts in the editing, and HBO's signature top notch production design and cinematography all add up to one continuous feeling of dread. At the end of episode three [minor spoiler], Cohle intones, “And like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it.” On screen we see, in a long shot set in some backwater swamp area, a man wearing only his briefs and a gas mask, holding a machete, lookin like Walter White framed as Bigfoot.

It's a creepy way to end an episode, but then last week, when we finally meet said man, Reginald Ledoux, he turns out to be another guy spouting some premium grade claptrap. “Time is a flat circle,” he says to Cohle. Earlier in that episode, Cohle finally meets Ledoux's partner DeWall. Both Ledoux and DeWall look like the type of crazy backwoods mountain men who Raylan Givens would be slapping around in Justified, and yet DeWall takes one look at Cohle and proclaims, “I can see the soul at the edges of your eyes,” he tells him. “It's corrosive, like acid. You got a demon, little man, and I don't like your face. It makes me want to do things to it.” This is some pair of loquacious redneck murderers, maybe distant cousins of Anton Chigurh?

True Detective has not concluded yet, so it's possible that when we find out who the killer was, so much of the setup will end up paying off, rather than feeling, as in the plot of The Killing, like so much moody padding. Until then, though, the emperor has no clothes (nor do most of the women on the show).

The TV to get (before it's gone)

Those who know me well know I'm really fussy about my A/V setup. I was dismayed to learn that Panasonic is exiting the plasma TV business. Pioneer stopped making plasma TVs a few years ago, though not before I could snag one of their Kuro plasma displays. They produced the most gorgeous picture out there, with the deepest black levels, and now, more than 6 years level, my set still produces a better picture than the latest LCD sets on the market.

LCD is all the rage for how thin the displays are, but once you have the TV hung or set up the width and weight of the TV contribute little to your viewing pleasure. The most salient advantage of LCD TVs over plasmas is their ability to cope with ambient light better, but if you're a video enthusiast you'll try to control light in any viewing room anyhow. In all other respects when it comes to picture quality, I prefer plasmas. The average consumer cares less about such things, and thus LCDs outsell plasmas by a healthy margin.

If you are the type of person who cares about getting a TV with the best picture quality, Panasonic's impending exit means it might be your last chance to grab the best mid-sized plasma out there, the best of the TVs that won't cost you the price of an entry-level sedan: the Panasonic VIERA TC-P60ZT60.  I had heard good things from a few A/V enthusiasts I trust, so I checked one out at a local electronics store this week while waiting to meet up with someone.

It lives up to the hype. The black levels were visibly deeper than those of the LCDs around it (though you do have to tweak the settings as electronics stores notoriously jack up brightness and contrast levels for TVs on the showroom floor, and those aren't the optimal settings for everyday viewing). Contrast ratio matters a lot for actual and perceived picture quality. I'm not a fan of current 3D technology in home TVs so I can't speak to that aspect of the TV, but for normal everyday 2D viewing the Panasonic is at the head of the class.

So if you're looking for a TV this holiday season, snag one of these before they're gone forever. Word on the street has it they're being discontinued in December. If you want an even bigger set, Panasonic makes a 65" version as well.

The soon to be discontinued Panasonic VIERA TC-P60ZT60

The soon to be discontinued Panasonic VIERA TC-P60ZT60

Misc

The United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. Studies employing pedometers have found that where the average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day (just a few shy of the supposedly ideal “10,000 steps” plateau, itself the product, ironically, of a Japanese pedometer company’s campaign in the 1960s), the average Japanese 7,168, and the average Swiss 9,650, the average American manages only 5,117 steps. Where a child in Britain, according to one study, takes 12,000 to 16,000 steps per day, a similar U.S. study found a range between 11,000 and 13,000.

America's walking crisis. The problem, of course, is that much of the United States was laid out with the expectation that we'd all be driving. It would be interesting to see some of the companies selling pedometers, like Fitbit, Jawbone, or Nike, to release some data on average steps walked by region. Among the reasons I miss New York City, one of the main ones is how much that city rewarded pedestrians in every way.

*****

A good overview of the debate over whether the economic growth from technological innovation is plateauing or just in a temporary adjustment lull.

*****

Also related to The Great Stagnation, here's a post speculating what would happen if we all just popped Modafinil all the time so we only needed to sleep about a quarter as much each day without losing mental acuity.

That might be good for economic output, but it also might just accrue to increased time on the sofa. If Netflix starts mailing you Modafinil pills, consider it creative marketing for House of Cards 5.

*****

Is soccer irreparably corrupted by match fixing? Even if it is, does it matter if people are still paying and watching in high numbers?

It's a crisis less felt in the United States because we don't really follow the sport the same way we do other sports, but if this were one of the three majors (football, basketball, baseball), the outrage would be much higher. We enjoy the concept of sports as games with somewhat probabilistic outcomes.

Perhaps the illusion that outcomes are not predetermined is sufficient? The most profitable enterprises are those which are, on the whole, deterministic, even as they offer probabilistic outcomes in any single trial. The monument to that is Las Vegas.

*****

Isn't it strange that some of our best reviews of TV shows come in book review journals? As evidence: Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and Homeland. Yes, for those keeping score, two of those are by the talented Lorrie Moore, so that explains a lot of it.

*****

ESPN the Magazine is consistently disappointing in its content, but a recent issue on perfection included a great article on Tiger Woods constant quest to reinvent his golf swing, with this gorgeous graphic (PDF) illustrating the differences among the four major incarnations of his swing .

It's good to be (one of several) kings

Yesterday I got a text message from AT&T today saying I'd just gone over $20 worth of text messages this month and that it would've been better for me to have paid $20 for one of their monthly text message subscriptions.

Most months, paying a la carte for text messages has worked out for me, but not this month. iMessages hasn't worked as often as it has in the past so some of my text messages to and from Apple iMessages users have ended up going the conventional route, and I was at Sundance where I received a ton of group texts from some Android users in my house.

Whenever I express my disgust at paying AT&T for text messages, people bring up the ridiculous mismatch between the cost of transmitting that infinitesimal volume of data over the telecom network and the actual cost they charge consumers. It's a mistake to think of text messages as goods that are priced on a cost-plus basis.

Telecom network operators invest a lot to build out their network. Once they have the infrastructure in place, and especially if they are part of an oligopoly, which many telecom operators were for quite some time, they can really charge whatever the market will bear for their goods. They're not looking to take the cost of a text message and mark it up by some percentage. They're looking to make as much as possible off of each of their subscribers across voice, data, text messages, and all the other services they offer.

Consumers routinely make the mistake of thinking the cost of their data, voice, and messaging plans are tied much more closely to the cost of delivering those services than they actually are. The pricing plans themselves contribute to that confusion because the more messages or data you want, the more you pay.

AT&T and Verizon no longer offer unlimited data plans anywhere in their cellular packages, and they'll blame people overloading their networks for doing so, but the truth is they are just pricing things to extract more revenue from their customer base.

This is the same economics mistake Brian Stelter of the NYTimes makes in his article Rising TV Fees Mean All Viewers Pay to Keep Sports Fans Happy. On the surface, it seems like he's right. Since ESPN is the most expensive channel for cable operators to carry (at last check when I was at Hulu, the SNL Kagan rate for ESPN was something like $5 per subscriber per month, by far the priciest of all cable channels), it seems like people who don't watch ESPN are paying to subsidize those of us who do watch ESPN.

However, almost everyone I know only watches a small fraction of the hundreds of channels they have to pay for in the cable bundles available to them. You could make arguments that ESPN viewers are subsidizing people who watch Lifetime and the History Channel.

Cable and satellite companies, like telecom network operators, have built out this expensive network infrastructure, and they are also fortunate to be part of a legal oligopoly. They work hand in hand with content owners to push the prices of your cable subscription up every month, and until now, the cord-cutting has been minimal. As your monthly cable package prices goes up, the cable/satellite guys make more money, and they hand more of it over to the content owners. Why wouldn't they both continue to squeeze more money from consumers as long as possible?

The same applies for your broadband internet access. The cost of your monthly internet access isn't based on the cost of delivering that bandwidth to you. The margins on broadband internet have been estimated to be upwards of 90% to 100%. Most of that infrastructure was paid off years ago from cable customers. Carrying internet data over the same cables and being able to charge for that service is just gravy. They can charge those extortionate rates because most consumers have very few broadband alternatives, if any, where they live.

Trying to lower the amount you pay for monthly text messaging, cellphone voice and data, cable/satellite subscription, and your internet broadband is almost impossible for consumers. If enough consumers started to cancel their text message plans because of iMessages or WhatsApp or something else, AT&T would just gouge us for revenue another way to make it up, maybe by raising the price of data or voice plans. 

The only reliable way to drive down price of these services is to offer real competition to these legal oligopolies. The FCC really failed U.S. consumers in allowing them to end up beholden to these communication oligopolies (enterprising reporters out there, this is a subject worth a long article). To build out the types of infrastructure to compete with these companies is priced beyond the hope of all but a handful of companies.

Disruption has not come as quickly as we all would love. We all thought we'd be watching content for much less on our Google or Apple TVs, or that we'd be making voice calls over some ubiquitous wi-fi network blanketing the country, and it would all cost much less than we'd paid for the equivalent services before.

Failure just forces disruptors to be more creative, though, and businesses with outrageous margins like these oligopolies have tend to fall prey to the barbarians at the gate in the totality of time. I've recently seen some companies starting to take new attack vectors on the incumbents, and I suspect the challengers will be more successful this time around. That's a subject for another day, another post.

UPDATE: Timely, but perhaps some proof that competition is the only way to get these oligopolists to lower their prices: a Time Warner broadband customer living near the Google Fiber installation in Kansas received an unsolicited speed bump and price drop.