Blurry Boundaries

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure just where the boundary between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ violence lies for me. I like my horror creepy and/or with a good dose of humor mixed in. Today’s trend towards ultra-violent torture porn just makes me feel ill.

Yesterday, I posted this to my Google+ account:

Just watched the red band trailer for the new Evil Dead remake/reboot. That is so not for me. I like the original with and because of its crazy low-budget camp, and love that they just ran with that for the rest of the series and went completely goofy. This new, ultra-realistic, ultra-violent, ultra-bloody take, even if it’s more in line with what they originally wanted to do, doesn’t appeal to me in the least.

I like my horror creepy and/or with a good dose of humor mixed in. Today’s trend towards ultra-violent torture porn just makes me feel ill.

Then, earlier today, I tweeted this:

Watched The Cabin in the Woods today. Crazy, and really good. Glad I hadn’t read any spoilers beforehand. http://t.co/rIngl2A3 #IMDb

Then just a few minutes ago, Prairie and I finished watching the fourth season of Dexter, and while the ending cliffhanger was upsetting, it was upsetting in the way a good TV cliffhanger should be, and we’ll definitely continue watching the series.

There seems to be some possible irony in all of that.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure just where the boundary between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” violence lies for me. There were definite moments in The Cabin in the Woods that were more violent than I was really comfortable with, and Dexter occasionally pushes right up to the edge, but in both cases, I think there are three things that make the difference and keep me watching:

  1. The stories are good. Even in the moments where the violence pushes further than I might like it to, I’m already invested enough in the characters and the plot that I’m willing to deal with the occasional cringe and “was that really necessary?” thought in order to continue with the story.

  2. They don’t dwell on the violence. The acts, while necessary to the story, aren’t the point of the story, and as such, even when they’re shown on screen, it’s generally not a huge, long, drawn-out scene. It happens, there’s that moment of shock, and then they move on.

  3. The violence is a part, but isn’t the point. I’ve seen other films (the first Saw film, for instance, which was two hours of my life whose only useful purpose was to convince me that I have no need to ever waste time on any of the rest of the series) that are truly deserving of the “torture porn” designation. The violence is the point of the film, and any bare minimum of plot is there only to move from one violent act to the next. Even films that aren’t part of the modern “torture porn” style of horror can fall victim to this kind of approach: For instance, part of why I didn’t think much of Tim Burton’s take on Sweeny Todd (which I’ve enjoyed on stage) was his insistence on showing every slit throat in loving closeup. Once would have been quite forgivable in order to get the point across, but I found the repeated shots of gaping bloody throats to be quite unnecessary.

Of course, there’s a lot of grey area in all of this, and the boundary between what works for me and what doesn’t is definitely very, very blurry. Sometimes it just boils down to the old cliché about the difference between erotic art and pornography: I know it when I see it.

Sheldon Cooper’s Holographic Laptop

So I noticed something that amused me while watching Big Bang Theory the other night — apparently Sheldon has a holographic display on his laptop. The real-world explanation, of course, is the conceit of television’s visual language, but that’s not nearly as much fun to believe.

So I noticed something that amused me while watching Big Bang Theory the other night — apparently Sheldon has a holographic display on his laptop.

Obviously, some evidence in the form of screenshots is in order (all from Season 4, Episode 15, “The Benefactor Factor”, though I noticed this in Episode 14, “The Thespian Catalyst”, as well).

First up, a shot of Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy. This is mostly to set the scene, there’s nothing much to see here.

Big Bang Theory: Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy
Sheldon videoconferencing with Amy.

Next, a POV shot of what Sheldon sees while sitting directly in front of the computer.

Big Bang Theory: Sheldon's POV while videoconferencing with Amy
Sheldon’s POV while videoconferencing with Amy

Finally, here’s the shot that caught my eye — a shot over Sheldon’s shoulder.

Big Bang Theory: Looking over Sheldon's shoulder during the videoconference
Looking over Sheldon’s shoulder during the videoconference

Compare those last two shots. In the first shot, from Sheldon’s POV, we see Amy from directly ahead. She’s looking directly into the camera, as would be expected. However, in the second shot, she’s turned slightly to her right, giving us a slight profile shot (and while it doesn’t really translate in still shots, this isn’t because she was shaking her head or momentarily turned her head for some reason — she holds her head in this position through the entire shot).

The final impression is that as the camera switched from Sheldon’s POV to the over-the-shoulder shot, the perspective changed in our view of Amy, so that we see her from the same angle as if the two characters were speaking face-to-face rather than over video chat…but the only way that could happen would be if Sheldon’s computer had a holographic display!

With our normal, flat, non-holographic computer screens, of course, even when moving to the side of a computer screen, we would still see the other party looking straight into the camera…so we’d see the image something like this:

Big Bang Theory: What real-world laptops would display
What real-world laptops would display

Of course, in the visual language of television, that looks odd. We expect characters to look at each other, and we know that Sheldon and Amy are looking at each other, so the technically correct shot seems a little odd, as Amy is still looking directly out of the screen, apparently at the viewer instead of at Sheldon. The solution, then, is to have her turned slightly to her right when filming those sequences so it still appears that she’s looking directly at Sheldon, even though it gives the somewhat amusing impression that Sheldon has a laptop far more advanced than any currently on the market (as does Amy, as she’d have to have a laptop that can both film and broadcast 3D video chat streams) — but then, would we really expect anything less from Sheldon Cooper? ;)

I have no idea how often this technique is used on other shows, as this is one of the few times I’ve noticed it. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I noticed this technique being used was in Star Trek (TNG comes to mind, though I can be relatively sure that it was also done this way in DS9, VOY, and ENT). However, in the Star Trek universe, it’s known (at least to the more geeky technobabble obsessed fans) that the main display screen on the bridge of the Enterprise is a holographic display, and it’s not that far-fetched to believe that the smaller displays might be as well, so the conceit was never as jarring when I noticed it there.

So…there’s my ridiculously over-analyzed geek moment of the day.

21st Century Television (Part Two)

As promised, here’s a bit more information on the geeky details of how I’ve set up our cable-free TV system.

As promised, here’s a bit more information on the geeky details of how I’ve set up our cable-free TV system.

First off, credit where credit is due: I got a lot of pointers in setting all of this up from this post at Nyquil.org, along with a couple of follow-up email messages with Jer. Thanks!

  1. Set up a GigaNews Usenet account. While Usenet, in the pre-web days, was one of the premier methods of communicating across the ‘net and thus included free with most Internet packages, those days are long gone. Now, Usenet is the best and fastest way to grab those TV episodes we’re looking for, but it costs a few dollars a month to get access (far less than your average cable bill, however). There are other Usenet providers available, but Giganews was recommended to me, is working fine for me, and is reasonably priced, so I’m passing on the recommendation to you.

  2. Set up a (free) NZBs(dot)ORG account. .nzb files are the Usenet equivalent of Bittorrent’s .torrent files: pointers to all the various pieces of each media file. NZBs(dot)ORG lists NZBs in a number of categories; the TV > XVID category is non-HD if you still have an old non-HDTV; people with HDTVs may want to use the x264 category for 720p/1080p content.

  3. Install SABnzbd+. This is a free, open-source program that handles all the pain-in-the butt steps of using .nzb files. Without SABnzbd+…well, I’ll let Jer explain:

    …you…find yourself manually extracting RAR files, applying PAR2 files to regenerate missing chunks, and then disposing of all the compressed/encoded files after extracting your media file. Not to mention seeking out and downloading every episode of everything you want to download. It’s not for the faint of heart.

    With SABnzbd+, you simply toss it the .nzb file, and it takes care of all of that for you. Even better, it supports a “drop folder” system, so you can simply put a downloaded .nzb file into a folder, and moments later it automagically gets slurped into SABnzbd+ and the files start downloading. Even better than that, though, is its support for RSS feeds…and since NZBs(dot)ORG lets you save RSS feeds of particular searches, it’s relatively trivial to automate the downloading process.

    For my setup, I created an “nzb” folder inside my usual “Downloads” folder. Inside that, I have three folders: “new” (my SABnzbd+ drop folder, for adding manually downloaded .nzb files), “incomplete” (where SABnzbd+ stores the in-progress downloads), and “complete” (where SABnzbd+ stores the finished downloads after post-processing). I also have an alias to the media folder that the Roksbox software accesses; this is for my own convenience and not necessary in all setups.

    SABnzbd+ folder structure

  4. Set up and save searches on NZBs(dot)ORG for the shows you want to track. (NOTE: NZBs(dot)ORG has redesigned since this post was written, so these instructions aren’t quite correct anymore. They should be close enough to point you in the right direction, though.) Click on the “My Searches” link towards the top right of the NZBs(dot)ORG page, then click on “[Add]” next to “Saved Searches” towards the left of the “Add Search” page. Because NZBs(dot)ORG doesn’t allow for a preview of a search, I’ve found it easiest to keep the NZBs(dot)ORG front page open in a separate tab so that I can do a test search for my primary search terms, then look for which terms I want to exclude.

    For example, we want to watch CSI, but aren’t interested in the New York or Miami spinoffs. So, my saved search uses the search term “csi” in the “TV-XviD” category, but filters out anything with “dvdrip” (as I’m not interested in older episodes ripped from DVDs), “ny,” “york,” “miami,” or “geographic” (apparently there’s a National Geographic show that uses the initials CSI in its title).

    Safari002.png

    Eventually, you’ll build up a list of shows that will automatically populate whenever a new show that matches any of your saved searches appears on Usenet. Here’s a look at how my searches are set up — no snarks on our taste in TV, please, we’re quite aware of our guilty pleasures. ;)

    Safari003.png

    Now, see that little “RSS” link after each search? Those are going to come in very handy, as we flip back over to SABnzbd+….

  5. Add your saved searches to SABnzbd+. Under the “Config” link in the left hand sidebar of SABnzbd+, click on “RSS”. Copy the RSS feed link for one of your NZBs(dot)ORG saved searches, paste it into the “RSS Configuration” > “New Feed URL” field in SABnzbd+, name the feed something other than “Feed1”, and hit the “Add” button. That’s it!

    (While SABnzbd+ does offer various filtering options for RSS feeds, because you’re taking care of the filtering ahead of time in your NZBs(dot)ORG searches, you shouldn’t need to worry about these fields. If you’re using a different .nzb search site that doesn’t allow customization of RSS feeds, you should be able to use these filters to remove items you’re not interested in.)

    Safari004.png

    The first time SABnzbd+ scans the RSS feed, it will not download anything — this is intentional, as you probably don’t want to suddenly be downloading all of the items listed in the RSS feed. If there are any recent episodes that you’d like to download, you can click on the “Preview” button next to your newly-entered feed to choose which items you’d like to download.

    Go through and add the rest of the RSS feeds for your saved searches, and you’re all set. From here on out, as long as SABnzbd+ is running, it will keep an eye on your saved searches. Whenever a new episode that matches one of your searches appears, SABnzbd+ will see it in the RSS feed, grab the .nzb file, download everything it needs, assemble and decompress it, and store the finished download in the “completed” folder.

Now, if all you’re interested in is getting ahold of TV episodes and having them on your computer to watch, you’re set! I copy the downloaded files to a network drive and use the Plex software to pipe the shows over to the Roku player attached to our TV. Good to go!


NOTE: The following information is the original ending to this post, but is deprecated, as the situation is now simpler. However, I’m keeping it here for the sake of completeness.

However, in our case, I also need to convert the downloaded video from .avi to H.264-encoded .mov or .mp4 files, as that’s the only format that the Roku player will accept, and then move the files into their proper place within my computer’s webserver for Roksbox to access. While I haven’t been able to automate all of this, I have managed to use Automator, AppleScript, and the HandBrake video conversion software’s command line interface to automate the .avi to .mp4 conversion.

Now, I’m no Automator or AppleScript guru — this is actually one of my first experiments with either technology — so this may not be the best or most efficient way to handle this particular option. I’m certainly open to suggestions for improvement! However, it’s working for me…so far.

If you’d like, you can download my Automator action (121k .zip file). To install it, decompress the .zip file and add it to your ~LibraryWorkflowsApplicationsFolder Actions folder. Create a folder named “TV” inside the ~Downloadsnzbcomplete folder (it will be added automatically by SABnzb+ the first time it downloads a TV episode, but it needs to exist for this to work). Additionally, the HandBrake CLI must be installed in your main Applications directory.

To activate the HandBrake action, right-click on the “TV” folder and choose “Folder Actions Setup…” from the pop-up menu. In the Folder Actions Setup dialog, choose “Handbrake.workflow” and click the “Attach” button. Once that’s done, whenever SABnzbd+ finishes post-processing a download and moves the folder containing all of the files to the “TV” folder, this Automator workflow will automatically be triggered. Here’s what it does:

  1. Get Folder Contents and repeat for each subfolder found. This scans the TV folder and the folder that’s just been added to it to find all the contents.

  2. Filter Finder Items for files with the .avi extension that are larger than 20 MB (this avoids running into a conflict with the small quality sample .avi files that are sometimes included).

  3. Run AppleScript

    on run {input, parameters}
      set input to POSIX path of input
      set ConvertMovieCmd to "nice /Applications/HandBrakeCLI -i " & input & " -o " & input & ".mp4 --preset="Normal" ;"
      do shell script ConvertMovieCmd
      return input & ".mp4"
    end run
    

    This simple AppleScript: grabs the file passed to it by step two; converts the file path to use POSIX slashes rather than HFS+ colons as delimiters; creates a terminal command for the HandBrake CLI using the .avi file as input, the “Normal” preset, and simply appending .mp4 to the existing file name on output; and passes the newly created file to the next step in the action.

  4. Move Finder Items moves the new .mp4 file to the “complete” folder, one level up from the “TV” folder.

  5. Show Growl Notification pops up a sticky Growl alert to let me know that a new episode has finished transcoding. Obviously, this step will only work if you have Growl installed.

Eventually, I’d like to figure out how to get the action to move the folder containing the just-processed .avi file to the trash, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that without possibly also moving any other folders at the same level to the trash (which might interfere with other downloads not yet transcoded), so for now, I’m sticking with manually cleaning up the extra files after the transcoding is finished.

From there, all that really needs to be done is moving the file from the “completed” folder to its proper place in the Roksbox file structure, and it’s ready to watch on our TV. I do a few other steps manually to “pretty up” the experience — adding “poster art” and XML-based episode descriptions for the Roksbox interface — but those are entirely optional, and many people won’t see the need to bother with those steps.

And that’s it! 80% of the process is now completely automated, and that last 20% that I do manually is entirely optional and basically just feeds my anal-retentive need to present things as slickly as possible whenever I can.

Hopefully all this has been interesting and informative to at least a few people out there. Questions, comments, ideas for improvement? Let me know!

21st Century Television (Part One)

Cable and broadcast TV are no more for us. Instead, we have our personal DVD library, DVDs we order from Netflix, the entire Netflix on-demand library, and, for the current-run TV shows we want to keep up with, I simply download them and toss them into the Roksbox library for us to watch commerical-free at our leisure.

A few days ago, I was finally able to follow through on something that Prairie and I had been discussing of and on for a few weeks — I called Comcast and disconnected our cable account. As we live in the Kent valley and are too blocked by mountains to get effective digital broadcast reception, this effectively bans broadcast television.

We’ve been working our way towards this for some time now, for two major reasons: one, sitting around and watching too much TV just isn’t healthy, and two, though there are a few shows that we enjoy watching, the commercials were just driving us up the wall. We had started by developing a number of “rules” — all in place before disconnecting the cable, but still in place — governing our TV consumption:

  1. No reruns. Not even if we haven’t seen that particular episode before. If it’s not a first-broadcast show, we’re not watching it. It’ll be out on DVD or made available for online streaming eventually, and we’ll watch it then, at our convenience, without commercials.

  2. The TV does not get turned on before 7:30 or 8 p.m. On any given “normal” night (that is, those that don’t have me at school until late in the evening) we tend to eat dinner at right around 6 p.m. In the “old days,” it wasn’t uncommon for us to grab our food, plop down in front of the TV, and zone out until 10 or 11 when we went to bed. Now, we’re eating at the table, finishing dinner, doing the dishes, and spending an hour or so playing games (our current obsessions are Set and Monopoly Deal) before the TV even gets turned on.

  3. The TV does not get turned on unless we exercise. We have a non-motorized treadmill and a reclining stationary exercise bike in the living room, and we have to put in at least half an hour each on either the treadmill or the bike if we want to watch TV.

  4. We watch only what we’re actually interested in. No more just turning the TV on just to see what’s on, or to flip channels, or for background noise (admittedly, not something we were in the habit of anyway), or anything similar. Unless we know we want to see something, we’re not bothering.

All of this was a great start, but over the course of the summer, one more piece of the puzzle fell into place when I added a Roku player to our entertainment system. I rambled on about our love affair with this little box a few months ago, but here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Cliff’s Notes Executive Summary: inexpensive, dead-simple, on-demand access to Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, and a whole lot more.

Thanks to the Roku and Netflix’s library of streaming titles (plus the DVDs we get through the mail), there was never a question of whether there was something we were interested in watching — just a question of what we felt like that night. After a few weeks, it became clear that the only reason we were holding on to our cable subscription was because there were still shows that we wanted to keep up with. We toyed with the idea of ditching cable, as we knew that more and more TV was being offered online either through legal channels such as Hulu and Amazon VoD or through the quasi-legal Bittorrent network, but watching shows on my computer in my office just wasn’t as comfortable or convenient as sitting in the living room in front of the TV.

A few weeks ago, however, I discovered Roksbox, an add-on channel for the Roku that allows me to stream media from my computer to the Roku in the living room. Bingo! That was the last piece we needed.

So, cable and broadcast TV are no more for us. Instead, we have our personal DVD library, DVDs we order from Netflix, the entire Netflix on-demand library, and, for the current-run TV shows we want to keep up with, I simply download them and toss them into the Roksbox library for us to watch commerical-free at our leisure.

It’s a great setup. We’re spending less time watching TV, and when we do watch something, it’s hassle-free, commerical-free, and at our convenience. As far as we’re concerned, this is definitely the way to go.

So that’s the general, non-techie overview. In part two of this, I’ll get into the geeky fiddly bits of how I’ve automated the process of finding, downloading, and prepping the TV shows we pay attention to.

I love my Roku

Readers Digest condensed Cliff’s Notes executive summary version: Do you have a Netflix account and a reasonable (1.5 MB/s or better) broadband connection? Then you should have a Roku player. That’s it.

Readers Digest condensed Cliff’s Notes executive summary version: Do you have a Netflix account and a reasonable (1.5 MB/s or better) broadband connection? Then you should have a Roku player. That’s it.

So a couple months ago, I had a birthday, and with that birthday came some a little bit of spending money (courtesy of Prairie’s mom) that I wasn’t sure what to do with. As I’m in school, not making money, and existing solely on financial aid and Prairie’s good graces, I’ve gotten very used to spending money only on what’s necessary, and not on toys or frivolities. Because of this, I didn’t have much of a “wish list,” and the things I’m generally likely to spend money on — used books and vinyl — I currently have stacks of, waiting for me to find time to either read or import into the computer, so adding to the stacks (as enjoyable as that is) didn’t seem like the best way to go.

I let the money sit for a while as I played with various ideas, and eventually decided to go for something I’d been eyeballing for a while, but which had always fallen into the realm of “neat toy that could be fun, but isn’t really necessary right now”: a Roku digital video player.

Roughly two months in, I can easily say that this was one of the best impulse buys I’ve made in a long, long time.

First off, the basics, in case you haven’t heard of the Roku before. Originally developed at and for Netflix, and later spun off into its own company and opened to more content providers, the Roku is a tiny little set-top box that plugs into your TV, giving you access to the Netflix library of streaming “Watch Instantly” titles. Prairie and I had just recently started discovering the joys of Netflix’s streaming library (with the addition of my new iMac, as before that, none of our computers were new enough to support Netflix’s streaming service), but camping out in my office to watch shows on my computer wasn’t nearly as comfortable as our living room, so the Roku sounded like a nice addition to the house.

Setup is dead simple. The box is small, and if you have a WiFi network at home, requires the bare minimum of cables: power, and the connection to the television (if you don’t have WiFi, you’ll need to run an ethernet cable to the box). It has the three primary video connection methods (composite video, for old-school TVs like ours; component video, for higher-quality video on TVs that support progressive scan input; and HDMI for High Definition TVs) and both standard stereo and optical audio output.

Getting started took just a couple minutes: I plugged it in, told it which WiFi network to use and put in the password, and after a brief moment to let the box download and install new firmware and reboot, it was up and running. I popped into the Netflix channel, chose something in my Instant Watch queue, and was watching a show no more (and probably much less than) ten minutes after opening the box. Impressive!

The Netflix interface is slick and simple, and — thanks to a recent software update that actually came out just before I got the Roku — allows for searching and browsing the Netflix streaming library, and shows off all the recommendations of things that Netflix thinks we’ll enjoy watching.

There’s a lot more than just Netflix available, though. Roku’s channel store has an ever-growing library of options, with lots of internet-based shows and podcasts, sports channels, Pandora radio, and — our personal favorite after Netflix — Amazon Video on Demand. Last weekend after seeing Inception, Prairie and I were still in the movie mood, decided to see what new releases Amazon had available, and ended up renting, watching, and thoroughly enjoying Whip It!.

Our feelings at this point: Blockbuster is doomed. Outside of needing something rare enough that it’s not available to stream from Amazon or Netflix and soon enough that we can’t put in our physical Netflix queue, we have absolutely no reason to physically rent a video anymore. Movie theaters aren’t in much better shape, either — the entire experience of watching something at home is so much nicer, more comfortable, more convenient, and cheaper than going to the movies that we’ll be doing that far less than we already do (and we haven’t been going terribly often as it is).

The video quality of the Roku is great, as well. Admittedly, ours is helped somewhat by my television (geekery: though it’s an older, standard-ratio TV, this model Sony Wega offers an “anamorphic compression” mode that squeezes the picture down to a 16:9 ratio from the standard 4:3 ratio, increasing the resolution as it does so; this allows me to tell the Roku that it’s connected to a widescreen TV, at which point it outputs an anamorphic signal that results in a higher resolution and better quality image than if it were outputting the standard 4:3 640×480 TV signal), but the image quality easily matches (or at least comes very, very close to) what we see out of our DVD player. One of the very few disappointments I’ve had with the Roku (and a very minor one at that) is that while my TV can accept component video, the Roku apparently will only output component video as progressive scan output, which my TV doesn’t support, so I’ve had to resort to the lowest-quality composite video connection. Still, the quality we get is good enough that I can’t really complain — and when we finally get around to upgrading to an HDMI-capable HDTV, the quality will only get better!

There are a few relatively minor caveats to the Roku. Most importantly, you do need a reasonable (1.5 MB/s) broadband connection, and for HD video (not an issue for me at the moment), it requires at least a 5 MB/s connection (which, even if I had the hardware to display HD video, isn’t available from Qwest at my address yet). A WiFi network, while not necessary, as the box does have ethernet input, is highly recommended, as it keeps you from having to string more cabling around your house. And, of course, with any online-based service, there is the potential for network or server issues to occasionally get in the way, though we’ve had very few times where this was an issue (and when it was, Roku and Netflix were both good about communicating with their customers, and we even got a bit of a refund from Netflix to make up for the service interruption).

In short, we love this box. We’ve been using it nightly, bouncing among a number of shows that catch our eye (recently: Bones, Futurama, Law and Order, Red Dwarf, and 30 Rock), and saving movies for when we have the time and interest to invest in a movie. This has increased our usage of the streaming service to the point where we’re considering dropping our Netflix subscription from our current 3-at-a-time down to the basic 1-at-a-time service, as Netflix (so far, and I hope this continues) is kind enough to offer their streaming service without limitation at all subscription levels. Good deal!

Once again: if you have Netflix and broadband, you really should have a Roku.

A tiny bit on the Lost finale

I’ve only had a few hours to process the _Lost_ finale, and I was asleep for most of them, so this is still a little unformed and right off the cuff. Still, right off the bat, I’m a bit of two minds on how it all wrapped up…

I’ve only had a few hours to process the Lost finale, and I was asleep for most of them, so this is still a little unformed and right off the cuff. Still, right off the bat, I’m a bit of two minds on how it all wrapped up…

(Behind the jump for those who prefer to remain spoiler-free.)

Update, two hours later: Okay — after conversation both with Prairie and in the comments to this post, it seems I didn’t quite “get it” right off the bat, and misinterpreted the end. The more I talk and think about it, the more I understand, and the more I like how things wrapped up. So, don’t pay too much attention to what follows…or if you do, please read through the comments as well. I’m actually quite okay with the fact that I didn’t get it at first and needed to talk it out. Too much TV is dumbed down so that the masses don’t have to engage their brain matter, and can just sit and zone in front of the tube. That this show didn’t take its viewers for granted, didn’t spoonfeed everything, and was willing to do things in a way that could (and, in my case, did) lead to some initial misinterpretation, forcing me to think about it, is a good, good thing.


Continue reading “A tiny bit on the Lost finale”

Law and Order and the Lakewood Shootings

I’m finding myself quite intrigued by my reactions as I watched last night’s Law and Order, which was based loosely on the Lakewood police shootings of last fall. When I saw last week’s promos for this episode, I had wondered about the possibility of it being a fictionalized take on the Lakewood shootings, but it was soon quite obvious that this was the case.

I’m finding myself quite intrigued by my reactions as I watched last night’s Law and Order, “Four Cops Shot,” which was based loosely on the Lakewood police shootings of last fall. When I saw last week’s promos for this episode, I had wondered about the possibility of it being a fictionalized take on the Lakewood shootings, but it was soon quite obvious that this was the case (and would have been even if KING5 hadn’t run a special “viewer advisory” banner over the first few minutes of the show).

Law and Order, like many of the modern crime shows, does occasionally supplement its totally fictional shows with shows “loosely based on” real events. There have been times in the past when we’ve enjoyed realizing that, hey, they’re doing this story, or that one. Of course, between the realities of compressing events that often take months into a single hour, and the particular demands of the format, these events are rarely, if ever, presented exactly as they happened, and sometimes, part of the fun is catching where the show is true to the source material, and where it veers away for the sake of television drama.

However, that game becomes a little less fun when the subject of the show in question is one that I’m actually familiar with. Suddenly, those moments when events change for the sake of the show — the “loose” parts of “loosely based upon” — seem more jarring, more unsettling.

(NOTE: From here on out, there will be spoilers for this episode.)

For the majority of the episode, they did a fairly good job of mirroring the events as they transpired last November. From the initial shooting of four off-duty officers (but no-one else in the eatery), to the city-wide manhunt for a wounded suspect, to the suspect’s getting assistance from friends and family, to the political fallout for a high-level politician who had earlier pardoned the suspect, everything moved along more or less as it had in the actual case. The first major change was the capture of the suspect, rather than his being shot and killed by an officer on the street, but this had been expected, as a live suspect is fairly necessary for the courtroom drama of the “Order” half of the show.

However, as the investigation proceeded and moved into the trial, some relatively major changes were made to the background of the suspect and the motivations for his actions — changes that, given how recently this happened, how well-known the four Lakewood officers were in their community, and how tender a subject this still is for many people, had both Prairie and me thinking that a number of locals are likely to be quite upset by how the story was presented.

I mentioned this on Twitter last night…

djwudi: “Wow. This Law & Order was staying fairly close with the broad strokes, but just took a sharp turn and gave the shooter a sympathetic motive.”

djwudi: “I’ve got the feeling a lot of locals are going to be upset about how Law & Order decided to fictionalize the Lakewood shootings.”

…and not long afterwards, found this:

politicallogic: “NBC Law & Order Outrage! Dramatizing Lakewood Police murders. Make Cops bad guys & portray murderer as a victim. Disgusting!”

So what did they do? In the real world, shooter Maurice Clemmons was bad news. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

Prior to his alleged involvement in the shooting, Clemmons had at least five felony convictions in Arkansas and at least eight felony charges in Washington.2 His first incarceration began in 1989, at age 17. Facing sentences totaling 108 years in prison, the burglary sentences were reduced in 2000 by Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee to 47 years, which made him immediately eligible for parole. He was released in 2000.

Clemmons was subsequently arrested on other charges and was jailed several times. In the months prior to the Lakewood shooting, he was in jail on charges of assaulting a police officer and raping a child.

In the days before the attack, Clemmons talked about his plan to shoot police officers:

On November 26, 2008, less than one week after Clemmons posted his bail bond, during a Thanksgiving gathering at the home of Clemmons’ aunt, Clemmons told several people he was angry about his Pierce County legal problems and that he planned to use a gun to murder police officers and others, including school children. He showed a gun to the people in the room and told them he had two others in his car and home. Clemmons said he planned to activate an alarm by removing a court-ordered ankle monitor, then he would shoot the police officers who responded to his house. In describing the planned murder, Clemmons said, “Knock, knock, knock, boom!” Darcus Allen, a convicted murderer who previously served in a Arkansas prison with Clemmons, was allegedly present for the conversation. On November 28, Clemmons showed two handguns to friends Eddie and Douglas Davis and told them he planned to shoot police officers with them; the exchange was witnessed by Clemmons’ half-brother Rickey Hinton, with whom he shared a house.

However, in the Law and Order episode, Kelvin Stokes is presented as a young man, who, though troubled and with a dangerous past, had been working with police as an informant in an attempt to make up for his previous crimes. In a much larger departure from actual events, it comes out that two of the officers killed by Stokes had been the pair working with him, and they had overstepped their authority, pressuring him through threats against himself and his mother to get him to turn in higher-profile targets. Stokes, in turn, who had been getting paid by the officers for his work as an informant, was asking for more money — which eventually became the trigger for the shooting.

So: in the real world, a violent criminal with a grudge against the police who intentionally targets four random officers. In the fictional world, a former thug trying to make good, pushed over the edge into violence by the pressure of two cops who, if not dirty, were certainly overstepping ethical lines.

Of course, the reality is that for Law and Order, the actual events wouldn’t have provided the drama necessary for the courtroom scenes. Had Stokes been shot on the street as Clemmons was, there would have been no courtroom scenes; had the cops been innocent, random victims with no ties to their killer, there wouldn’t have been the “will-they-or-won’t-they-convict” drama in the courtroom.

It seems quite clear to me that the changes made were made for the sake of the story and for the one-hour crime drama format, and I must admit that I don’t feel the “outrage” or “disgust” that politicallogic does on his Twitter account (though from the looks of it, we have extremely different political ideologies, so other differences of opinion aren’t entirely surprising). In the end, this is a fictional entertainment show, and it would be silly to expect it to slavishly follow the events as they actually happened.

I did, however, find my own surprise and initial discomfort with the changes quite interesting to consider, and I’m sure there are many who were more closely affiliated with the Lakewood officers and their families who would be far more discomfited by this episode — and now I can’t help but think a little more about all those other episodes “loosely based on” real events, wonder how close they came to the real story, and how the changes made for those stories affected the people who had to deal with the real events.

No Olympics For Us

While it’s not quite to the point of being what I’d call a ‘boycott,’ it’s looking like the chances are extremely slim that we’re going to be watching much of this year’s Olympic coverage. We’d like to, but NBC has done a marvelous job of ensuring that we either _can’t_ watch, or when we can, we don’t want to.

While it’s not quite to the point of being what I’d call a “boycott,” it’s looking like the chances are extremely slim that we’re going to be watching much of this year’s Olympic coverage. We’d like to, but NBC has done a marvelous job of ensuring that we either can’t watch, or when we can, we don’t want to.

We just tried to watch some of this afternoon’s coverage. In the roughly fifteen minutes before we couldn’t take it any longer, we saw three commercial breaks, four talking heads (with audio lagging about a second behind the video feed), a bit of an interview with the first medalist from this year’s games, and eight-year-old footage from that same athlete’s first win in 2002. We listened to Bob Costas tell us that he was in Vancouver and that there were sports going on. We heard — again — about the accidental death on the luge track. We heard an interviewer ask an athlete “how he did it” after winning (um, he practiced his ass off, you idiot — why are sports interviewers always at the very bottom of the “stupid interview question” scale?).

What we didn’t see was any actual sports footage.

Oh, how I miss watching the last Summer Olympics on CBC, the Canadian network that Comcast carries locally. Their coverage was leagues better than anything NBC had: fewer inane talking heads (which can be interpreted as fewer talking heads overall or less inanity from the talking heads they had, either of which is an acceptable and correct reading); less “we’re the only country that matters” mentality; comprehensive coverage of all sorts of sports, even those that are less massively popular; and coverage that wasn’t constantly cut into with edits, updates, promises of what’s to come, and commercials (we spent one afternoon watching an entire marathon nearly commercial free, in part because we could, and in part because it was far more interesting than we’d ever realized, simply by virtue of actually being able to watch it). The realization that CBC wouldn’t be broadcasting the Olympics this year — and, further, that the Canadian network that got the contract isn’t viewable locally — was a sad one indeed.

Lately, we’ve been enjoying my new computer’s ability to watch streaming video sites like Hulu and Netflix, so I went to the NBC Olympics site to see what was available there. They’re posting a number of videos of stuff that has already happened, but prominently displayed on the main page is a live video stream (only active at particular times and for particular events, however). I click that, and am asked to tell NBC who my cable or Internet provider is. Apparently, NBC will only serve the live video to customers of certain other companies that they have contracts with. Annoying, but hey, Comcast is right near the top of the list, and we have Comcast cable, so we should be good.

After choosing Comcast, I get directed to a Comcast login page. I log in to Comcast, and they direct me back to the video stream…which tells me I’m not eligible. What? I go through the process again, and this time, work my way through until I discover that even though NBC has a contract with Comcast, and even though I’m a Comcast cable subscriber, I’m not the right kind of Comcast cable subscriber.

See, Prairie and I don’t watch a ton of TV, don’t see the need to pay ridiculous amounts of money for hundreds of channels we’ll never watch, and don’t even have a digital TV — both of our TVs are old, square, analog sets. So, there’s no reason for us to subscribe to digital cable, and we’re quite happy with our $15/month bare bones, completely basic, plug-the-cable-into-the-back-of-the-TV-set package (and honestly, we wouldn’t even bother with that if we got decent over-the-air reception with a digital receiver box, but OTA digital TV is essentially nonexistent in the Kent Valley). However, it appears that Comcast has decided that people like us don’t count, and is only sending the video streams to customers who subscribe to a digital cable package.

Crappy.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at Comcast’s website — and after poking around there, I think that digital cable prices might be one of the biggest arguments against upgrading our TVs until we absolutely have to (when they die, that is). Right now, we’re paying $15/month for a bare-bones package that serves us more than adequately — in fact, we only pay attention to about 7 of the 30-some channels that are part of the package, so there’s an argument to be made that even now, we’re over paying. If we were to upgrade to a digital cable package, the least expensive package available is $60 a month! Of course, what the website says is $30/month, but that’s only for the first six months. I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to quadruple what I’m currently paying so that I can have more crap that I’m not interested in piped into my home, no matter how pretty it is or how much of it has surround sound.

Further down the page, they mention a “Digital Economy Package,” apparently aimed at people like us, that actually is $30/month — but, of course, you can only get that if you also get your phone and/or internet through Comcast, which we don’t. So, once again, that’s not an option.

(Heading off counter-arguments: satellite TV isn’t an option, our apartment faces the wrong direction; and outlying the money for a HTPC/Media Center of some sort isn’t a realistic option for both budgetary reasons and that nagging little fact that we’re still using “old school” TV sets. I’ve got a very nice Sony TV set that’s only eight years old, and my parents have a Sony TV set that’s in its 30s and still working, so we may well not be upgrading our hardware for a long time to come.)

The end result of all of this? NBC can bite me, Comcast can bite me, and the Olympics — well, it’s not really their fault, but come on.

Thoughts on the Fall 2009 TV Lineup

I just peeked at TV Guide’s Fall 2009 TV lineup to see what Prairie and I might be interested in using to rot our brains with in the evenings. Most of the week looks doable, with only a few potential conflicts.

I just peeked at TV Guide’s Fall 2009 TV lineup to see what Prairie and I might be interested in using to rot our brains with in the evenings. Most of the week looks doable, with only a few potential conflicts. (Oh, and we are old and crotchety and go to bed at 10pm, so I’m not paying much attention to the 10-11pm block.)

  • Mondays

    While we like both How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory, as CBS has put one show we’re not likely to be interested in (Accidentally on Purpose) and one show we know we dislike (Two and a Half Men) in between the two, we probably won’t bother watching either one until the season DVDs show up on Netflix. This leaves us without anything we’re terribly interested in watching on Mondays until the mid-season switchup when Chuck comes back. Looks like Mondays will be TV-free for us until spring.

  • Tuesdays

    NCIS is a definite, with NCIS: LA a maybe. We’ll probably give NCIS: LA a couple weeks out of curiosity to see if they can pull off a successful spinoff, but we’re reserving judgement, as the NCIS episodes from last season that introduced the new team weren’t our favorites. Plus, once Dancing With the Stars (ugh) ends (hooray!), the Scrubs/Better Off Ted combo will (for us) be a strong contender — NCIS: LA will have to be really strong to pull us away once that switch happens. I am worried about ABC putting V up against NCIS in November — not only does NCIS already have a strong fanbase, but it’ll have had two months to set up any season-running plotlines to hold onto its fans. I really, really want to see this new take on V…but I also really enjoy NCIS. That’s going to be a difficult choice — one of them will have to get pushed to Bittorrent or some other form of online delayed viewing.

  • Wednesdays

    Law and Order: SVU and/or Criminal Minds are the only things that look interesting at all, and they’re both shows that we can watch or not watch depending on our mood. Wednesdays look pretty TV-free for us.

  • Thursdays

    While I’m curious enough about FlashForward to look for it on Bittorrent, Hulu, or some form of online watching, I’m not curious enough for it to win out over Survivor: Samoa (I’ll admit it, it’s one of two “reality” shows that Prairie got me hooked on). After that, it’s Fringe…or CSI (if I choose, it’ll be Fringe, if Prairie chooses, it’ll be CSI — either way, we’ll both enjoy what we watch, and the other will get the Bittorrent/Hulu/whatever treatment later in the week). Ugh. This one worries me. I really enjoyed season one of Fringe, and I’m not happy that FOX is putting it up against CSI. CSI has such an entrenched presence and fanbase, I’m not sure if the sci-fi, alternative reality weirdness of Fringe can pick up enough numbers to compete long-term. While I’m glad that Fringe is at least getting a second season, I worry that in putting it against CSI, FOX is just practicing a form of “delayed cancellation” — this way, FOX can just say Fringe didn’t get the market share it needed when they cancel it, even though if they’d moved it to a less competitive night (or left it where it was, though I can understand them not wanting to try to battle the NCIS juggernaut either), it might have done fine.

  • Fridays

    Prairie’s a fan of Ghost Whisperer, so we’ll keep watching that, even though last season kept annoying us (the ‘ghost of the week’ stories were fun and what kept us watching, the stupid ‘romance’ plotline with her husband in the body of the new guy is annoying, dragging on too long, and has enough WTF moments for a post of its own…but then I’d have to publicly admit that I watch Ghost Whisperer). Nothing else looks interesting.

  • Saturdays

    A wasteland of dreck. TV-free, for sure.

  • Sundays

    The Amazing Race is our favorite “reality” show, so that’s a definite. Nothing else that night is a must-see.

So that’s our lineup. Agree/disagree? Attempts to convince me to try a show I’m ignoring? Lemme know!