Elmo's arrival points to HBO's future

Sesame Street announced a new five season deal with HBO. The seasons will be available exclusively on HBO for nine months before dropping at PBS.

This is HBO pursuing the Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu strategy instead of the reverse, the latter three all offer or plan to offer original children's programming. HBO has never had kids programming, and this move is a clear acknowledgment that they view themselves as a mini-bundle in and of themselves, more so than a channel carried by the traditional cable bundle.

HBO was once content to be a brand that stood for movie titles from the Warner Bros. catalog and boxing. Then it offered some comedy, and then original series, most of it targeted towards an adult demographic. HBO has had some great original series over the years, but it's fair to characterize their house style as having a fair bit of sex and nudity along with a fair dose of profanity and violence. They told us “It's not TV. It's HBO.” but if you watched any of their series you weren't likely to confuse the two.

What they didn't offer was family or children's programming. The money was coming in by the truckload, especially during the heyday of DVD, so it wasn't as if HBO felt a great sense of urgency to diversify its subscriber base.

Then came Netflix, which doesn't have a house style. Rather, they have more of a technology companies approach to content and growth: why put artificial limits on your own growth? The limit on entertainment subscription service growth is a function of the diversity and quality of their content portfolio. To acquire a subscriber, you need enough content to entice that person to become a subscriber. Then you need enough interesting content each month to keep them from canceling (that's the main reason subscription services like HBO don't release all their series at the same time of the year).

Once you have enough content to acquire and keep one type of subscriber, the marginal return on your next dollar of content is higher if you produce content that appeals to another type of subscriber. That's the Netflix strategy. If you look at all their original series, they are all over the map in genre, style, tone. They want to offer something for everyone so their subscriber base can include anyone.

[Amazon Prime is an even more bizarre subscription because it includes not just video but free expedited shipping, Amazon music, unlimited photo storage, e-book lending libraries, Amazon-branded everyday essentials, cheaper shipping on groceries, and a personal drone for dropping your kids off at school. I made one of those up, but it might be part of Prime next year.]

And now HBO is following suit. The next step for HBO is to let its original series spill out from Sunday night. If you read the Hollywood Reporter or another industry rag, you'll no doubt have heard of HBO passing on quite a few original series recently. Some of that could be creative differences, but if any of it is HBO limiting themselves to what they can fit in their Sunday night time slots, they're imposing yet another artificial limit on themselves that makes no sense in this streaming, time-shifted age. If HBO Now is the future, at some point it shouldn't even matter if some content on HBO Now never airs on their cable channel, especially if it's something like Sesame Street which would seem out of place on a cable channel chock full of mature content. The MSO's wouldn't love that, and perhaps HBO would just tack on another channel like HBO Family, but they should be willing to consider any concessions to their linear channel to be a strategy tax.

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Since Twitter has largely replaced late-night talk-show monologues as the joke factory on the day's news, I enjoyed this roundup of humorous tweets riffing off of the HBO and Sesame Street deal.

The Jinx

This week I finally caught the finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven't seen it yet, then avoid the SPOILERS in this post ahead and move on.

The ending, as many have noted, was stunning, like some Michael Haneke movie come to life. Rarely has a still shot of an empty room been so fraught with horror. Just before then, when confronted with handwriting evidence that seemed to implicate him irrefutably, Durst started burping loudly, as if his subconscious was about to regurgitate the truth on camera. And then it did? Durst muttering “Killed them all, of course.” into a hot mic while he was in the bathroom alone couldn't be any more of a Shakespearean soliloquy if it came from the pen of the Bard himself.

The hot mic's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Like some, however, I take issue with some of Jarecki's choices. The first is his use of reenactments. I yearn for more just talking heads when it comes to documentary style, so I can understand the temptation of reenactments. Rather than just having someone talk about something that happened, you can hand the viewer a visual.

In doing so, though, you rob the viewer of their imagination, and you unconsciously bias them in all sorts of ways. One person might claim something happened. By actually enacting that moment on screen, that testimony gains corporeal form and feels more real. Or, if the reenactment is lousy, it seems less credible. Either way, the visuals overpower the spoken word, even as one is just one filmmaker's fancy.

Richard Brody writes:

Reënactments aren’t what-ifs, they’re as-ifs, replete with approximations and suppositions that definitively detach the image from the event, the vision from the experience. One of Jarecki’s reënactments leaves me strangely obsessed with an insignificant detail that takes on an outsized significance in revealing the inadequacy of his method for the emotional essence of the story. In the second episode, Kathie Durst’s friend Gilberte Najamy tells Jarecki that, before her disappearance, Kathie Durst went to a party at her house, where she told Najamy that she was afraid of Robert Durst, and insisted that, if anything happened to her, Najamy should “check it out.” To signify that there had indeed been a party at Najamy’s house, Jarecki offers a tracking shot of a table laden with platters of food—including a pasta salad with a single pitted black olive sticking up from it. I’m obsessed with that olive. Did Najamy describe to Jarecki the dishes that she served? Did she describe the table itself, the room? Did Jarecki film this scene where Najamy lived at the time, or where she lives now? Or did Jarecki assume that Najamy, or someone like Najamy (whatever he’d mean by that), would at the time have served that kind of pasta salad at a party that might look like that? Najamy’s account is powerful; Jarecki’s image is generic. Najamy is specific, concrete, and detailed. She delivers a crucial piece of her life, whole, to Jarecki—who treats it like a hack’s screenplay and makes a facile illustration of it.
 
Beyond the awe-inspiring (and sometimes awful) recollections of people involved in the past events that are at the center of the drama, Jarecki brings into play actual objects that bear a physical connection to them—which is why the objects of dubious provenance (such as a box of police records relating to Kathie Durst’s disappearance, sealed with red “evidence” tape) are such offenses to the dignity of the film’s subjects. Jarecki shows this box being taken from a shelf; he puts the camera inside the shelf and shows the box being put back there; he shows the box being unsealed and then sealed again. It’s impossible to know whether this is the actual evidence box for the case; whether the handwriting on the box is actually that of a police clerk from the time; whether the files pulled from it were handled by the actual investigators who worked on the case; whether the room where it’s stored is the actual file room or a studio mockup.
 

Jarecki doesn't just shoot conventional re-enactments, either. They are highly stylized. In my memory's eye, two shots from the series I can't shake (besides the last one of the series) are one of some actress playing Durst's mother committing suicide and the other of some actress playing Susan Berman toppling after being shot in the head. Both are images of female bodies falling, and both are played in slow motion, over and over, like something fetishistic shot from 300.

What's a shame is the series doesn't need them. Some of the reenactments are less stylized, but that just makes them harder to distinguish from live shots from the present. I don't mind a mixture of fiction and non-fiction in documentaries, but some spirit of fair play seems called for, especially when it's documentary as investigative journalism.

Many probably find all of this to be nitpicking and may not have had any problems with the series as filmed. It may be easier to understand if we examine the question using a series that many grouped with The Jinx, the podcast Serial. Imagine in Serial if, after Sarah heard testimony from a witness like Jay about seeing Hae's body in the trunk of the car at Best Buy, she put together an audio recreation of those events. If Sarah had hired some voice actors to play Adnan and Jay, recreating the conversation as Jay recalled it, layering in sound effects like a trunk popping open. Regardless of whether listeners felt Adnan was guilty, many would be uncomfortable with the technique.

The last episode steers clear of reenactments, but the cumulative effect of the one's from the first five episodes was such that I wasn't sure whether to buy the shots of Jarecki himself in the finale, speaking about how he feared for his life (this piece at Buzzfeed goes into a more in-depth stylistic breakdown of the narrative manipulation at work). Jarecki clearly doesn't shy from drama, but the use of all these tricks leads one to discount everything on screen, the way one applies a base level of skepticism to stories from a proven drama queen.

Another issue with the series is Jarecki's manipulation of the timeline. In the last episode, it seems as if Robert Durst agrees to sit with Jarecki for another interview (the now infamous one which concludes the series) only after police arrest Durst outside his brother's home. I thought for sure that was the sequence of events because it's shown in that order, and the series includes audio from a phone call from Durst to Jarecki asking for the director's help.

But when Jarecki was asked about whether he had manipulated this timeline in the NYTimes, he suddenly seemed as uncomfortable as Durst was in the last interview of The Jinx.

When did you discover the piece of audio from the bathroom, in which Mr. Durst seemed to confess?
 
Jarecki: That was at the tail end of a piece of an interview. I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014.
 
So it was more than two years later. From watching the episode, it seemed as if the 2013 arrest of Robert Durst for violating the order of protection by walking on his brother Douglas’s brownstone steps happened after the second interview.
 
Jarecki (to Smerling): I’m hearing a lot of noise. And if we’re going to talk about the timeline, we should actually sit in front of the timeline. So that’s my suggestion, if that’s the subject you want to talk about.
 
I’m just trying to clarify if the arrest for being on Douglas Durst’s property happened after the second interview.
 
Jarecki: Yeah, I think I’ve got to get back to you with a proper response on that.
 

Someone check the tails of that audio recording of Jarecki's interview, maybe his mic was still hot?

Maybe, as some have put it, we're a bunch of whiny brats all that matters is we caught that murderer and got six hours of lurid, compelling TV to boot. Judging by what critical reception I've seen, The Jinx was a resounding success, and so, perhaps as the underrated movie Nightcrawler depicted, we'll happily go along with a coming wave of vigilante journalism.

Perhaps the filming of The Jinx can be the subject of Serial, Season 2. Vigilante journalism recursion, the snake eating its own tail. Who am I kidding, I wouldn't be able to look away.

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).