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TV You Control: Bar Karma and Community-Developed Television

1 Dec

“Bar Karma is unique in that we not only welcome your suggestions, we can’t live without them. Bar Karma is the first community-developed television series. You decide the story, the characters, the plotlines — along with other viewers/participants.” – Bar Karma FAQ page

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the CurrentTV show Bar Karma, a single-season experiment in crowd-sourced television from the mind of The Sims and SimCity creator Will Wright that sort of flew under a lot of radars, but it’s worthy of closer inspection considering our recent discussion of participatory television.

I won’t delve too deep into the show’s sci-fi narrative and mythology about a mystical bar that travels through time and space and guides lost souls through crossroads in their lives, since I don’t find it that interesting — what’s interesting about Bar Karma is how it harnesses the creative energy of a TV-watching community and transforms them from passive recipients to active producers and storytellers. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, given the culture of speculative fan-fiction and forum discussions that have arisen in online communities centered around complex shows like Lost and Heroes, and how these forms of meta-engagement sometimes indirectly influence writers who take this type of feedback into consideration. However, through the show’s innovative StoryMaker application, creation and conversation are performed using a streamlined digital interface designed by Will Wright that stresses collaboration. Through StoryMaker, users/viewers can craft story pitches beat-by-beat in a 22-frame visual storyboard format with written captions (with each “card” or frame representing about one minute of screen time), recommending or commenting on cards composed by other users and expanding on them by composing the next scene, or creating their own from scratch. Despite the degrees of freedom in this utopian forum for organic, creative expression, the show’s professional production staff always run ideas through a “reality check” before throwing everything up to a community vote. Wright described this dynamic as essentially “blending the anarchy of crowds on the internet with a professional production team that’s inserted into the loop at strategic points.” The voting system then acts as a crucial filtering process that ultimately informs the production staff’s decision of which story pitches will be converted into episodes and arcs, given budgetary and time constraints. Voting, which focuses on positive reinforcement by not allowing users to explicitly dislike or down-vote ideas, also helps build reputations as users are ranked in a leaderboard by how many of their ideas have been recommended by community members. Perhaps a bigger incentive than community street cred, however, is that if your idea makes it into the show, you’ll see your name in the show’s end credits alongside the rest of the writing and production teams.

At the moment, the show’s site is in “read only” mode, since production has ended and the show hasn’t been picked up (yet) for a second season, but I highly recommend surfing through some of the archived story pitches, which range from short one-sentence posts in response to world-building challenges posed by the production team, to fleshed-out scene-by-scene outlines created collaboratively on StoryMaker, just to get a sense of how this novel mechanism enables collaborative storytelling. Also, I’ve only seen the first episode (spoiler alert: not that great, which prompts me to think if this show was only compelling to the invested niche audience that actually participated in the story-pitching process), so I’m still not entirely sure exactly how much of this community input (from un-professional strangers) was actually produced, and how much was filled in by professional writers. However, with Bar Karma, the process is far more fascinating than the product, and I’m curious to see if more shows adopt this emergent, community-driven approach to participatory televisual narratives.

Interview with Will Wright on Attack of the Show!

Brief StoryMaker tutorial

Prisoners of War vs. Homeland

25 Nov


When I learned in the opening credits of Homeland that the show was adapted from an Israeli drama series called Prisoners of War (also known as Hatufim), I became curious and searched the web for that show’s pilot to get a sense of how showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa clung to and deviated from Gideon Raff’s source material in their pilot. To my surprise, I found that the entire first season of Prisoners of War is available for streaming on Hulu, and was actually the platform’s first foreign language exclusive series in the U.S., with a new episode released each week.

The series follows two Israeli soldiers — Nimrode and Uri — who were captured seventeen years ago while on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. The story begins with their return home after years of negotiations for their freedom, with a third soldier, Amiel, who comes back in a coffin. The series explores Nimrode and Uri’s reintegration into an interrupted family life, while working through the trauma of being held captive and tortured for 17 years. Crucial to this narrative of reintegration are the show’s leading female characters — Talia (Nimrode’s wife, who has remained loyal to him for all these years), Nurit (Uri’s wife, who moved on and ended up marrying Uri’s brother), and Yael (Amiel’s sister, who sees her brother in visions). Indeed, a contrast is already evident in this more complicated ensemble setup. In Homeland, Uri and Nimrode have been collapsed into Brody — like Uri, Brody’s wife has moved on; and like Nimrode, there’s a huge rift between Brody and his kids, who have grown up without him.

Like many developed-for-American-television imports (I’m talking to you, The Office pilot), there are scenes in the pilot of Homeland that are uncanny in their beat-for-beat translation of similar scenes in the Prisoners pilot. Just like Jess prior to finally reuniting with Brody, Talia rehearses in front of a mirror how she’ll greet Nimrode upon his return. Also, understandably, both shows frequently employ hazy flashbacks to flesh out the trauma of these emotionally scarred captives. Both shows also unveil the characters’ physical scars similarly, with Talia seeing Nimrode’s scars as he takes off his shirt during intercourse.

However, what’s most noticeably missing from Prisoners is a paranoid, apophenic Carrie Matheson character sniffing out a straight-to-the-top conspiracy. The pilot alludes to a rehabilitation facility where Uri and Nimrode will presumably be questioned by a military psychiatrist in the next episode, but at this point there is no suspicion from any character that these two captured soldiers have been turned by terrorists, although the synopsis on Wikipedia suggests that there will be discrepancies in Uri and Nimrode’s personal accounts of their solitary imprisonment. Basically, to sum it up, it’s safe to say that Prisoners is more concerned with the soldiers and their domestic lives, whereas Homeland is about Carrie, and all the post-9/11 paranoia and political-thriller suspense that one has come to expect from the writers of 24.

The Wire: The Video Game

17 Nov


In his essay “All in the Game,” Mittell is quick to admit that the type of interactivity afforded by videogames (in the sense of an input-output feedback loop) is incompatible with the static spectatorship inherent to the televisual form of The Wire. Other problematic tensions aside, he instead deploys this surprising metaphor by turning to “the ludic elements within the show’s diegesis” (3), and ultimately uses this cross-media parallel to illustrate how the show simulates and aesthetcizes the kind of rule systems (i.e. institutional and personal codes) and “systems of interrelated actions” embedded in digital games. In both forms, “procedures are the essential building blocks of narrative, character, and rhetoric, the actions that are undertaken within the parameters of the simulation, the rules of the game” (9).

Indeed, “games” and “codes” assume various metaphorical functions in the televisual narrative of The Wire, and Mittell’s metaphor is useful in its ability to unravel the show’s formal features in a seemingly incompatible framework; but what would a videogame adaptation of The Wire actually look like? Or rather, how would it play? What game genre would such play fall under? How would a game designer translate the show’s narrative complexity, with its novelistic ambitions, thematic scope, and implicit procedural rhetoric, into an interactive ludic system that accounts for player intervention and agency in its procedural articulation of narrative?

There are a lot of hypothetical design decisions to be made here. Perhaps one way to re-imagine The Wire as a videogame is to (humorously) distill all of its narrative complexity into the limited form of a 16-bit role-playing game, as CollegeHumor did a few months ago in an animated viral video. The primitive RPG imagined in this video has the player assume the role of a character, whereas Mittell draws comparisons to the simulatory logics and bird’s-eye perspective of “god games” like SimCity and The Sims, and comically exaggerates the frustration associated with rule systems overriding the individual — indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Wire videogame that’s “fun” (whatever that means), unless it thematically deviates from the tragedy of its source material and aims for loftier ambitions by allowing for different outcomes based on player choices, or the possibility of a character winning “the game.”

The “Fuck” Scene

11 Nov

For last Thursday’s in-class “hypothetical pedagogy” exercise, our group used the infamous “Fuck” scene from the fourth episode of the first season of The Wire as a springboard for further discussion about how The Wire deviates from or challenges the conventional narrative strategies employed by most procedural crime dramas, in a lesson tailored to a high school demographic (with access to hypothetical permission slips and cool parents, of course). In case this doesn’t ring a bell, for whatever reason, or if you’re an outsider stumbling upon this blog, it’s the scene where McNulty and Bunk are investigating the scene of a murder and piecing together the clues, all while saying or muttering “fuck,” or variations of “fuck.”

The scene is both hilarious and brilliantly self-reflexive in its eschewing of redundant dialogue as an expository device, a narrative strategy prevalent in many crime scene investigations conducted in Law and Order, in favor of essentially-nonverbal, visual exposition that ultimately provides the same amount of narrative information. Implicit in a scene that is so minimal and economical in its exposition is a level of trust that a writer has with the viewer (whose spellbound spectatorship is figured by the landlord in this scene), which is often a safe assumption to make with HBO’s audience — in other words, if you’re not closely following the series of connections being made by McNulty and Bunk, then the final discovery of the bullet jacket in the grass might not be such a satisfying revelation. Indeed, information is rarely ever spoon-fed through cheap expository devices in a narratively complex show like The Wire, although the pilot does at one point break this principle by turning to a flashback to clarify a connection between the Gant murder and an earlier courtroom testimony. In the commentary track for the pilot, David Simon expresses how he was very much against relying on this time-manipulation device because it disrupted the organic, linear momentum of the narrative, and perhaps momentarily undermined its style of realism; although, as someone who often struggles to follow or keep up with the logical flow, jargon, and pace of the series, I definitely appreciated it and thought it effectively visualized an internal moment of epiphany.

Tim and Eric: Awesomely Videographic Show, Great Job!

27 Oct


In his discussion of the televisual aesthetic in “Excessive Style,” Caldwell presents a stylistic spectrum that ranges from “cinematic” to “videographic” (12). The cinematic mode exploits the visual grammar, spectacle, and production values of film, ideally aiming for a softening of mediation and accentuating of immersion — the rich diegetic worlds of the artful HBO dramas that Anderson highlights are prime examples of this televisual mode. The videographic guise, however, is “marked by acute hyperactivity and an obsession with effects” (12-13), and ultimately heightens mediation through its aesthetic strategies of digital manipulation and imaging (i.e. the bizarre cyberpunk world of Max Headroom, and the hyper-awareness of the televisual apparatus in CNN news broadcasts). Both modes enable different kinds of televisual exhibitionism or stylistic embellishment, but I’m particularly interested in how the videographic mode can be exploited in jarring and self-reflexive ways.

Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim comedy block might just be the quintessential series that operates within this particular televisual aesthetic. Described by its creators as “the nightmare version of television,” Awesome Show is essentially a sketch comedy series that adopts its flow and aesthetic from the lo-fi world of public-access television, employing disorienting formal and narrative devices like glitch, faux-commercials, and telethon musical acts to create an atmosphere of surreal, uncanny, avant-garde, and self-aware camp. Each sketch is diegetically framed within the context of a fictional public-access channel called Channel 5 (although one can easily get lost or entranced in the hyperactive, non-sequitur progression and lose sight of this meta-framework), with fake commercial interruptions that use green screen and special effects to videographically mimic infomercials and commercials and promote useless products made by the Cinco Corporation (i.e. It’s Not Jackie Chan!: The Board Game, the Cinco MIDI Organizer, Sleepwatching Chair, etc.). Another recurring sketch where the videographic style lampoons or mimics a quotidian aspect of public-access TV is Uncle Muscle’s Hour, which features poor, decayed VHS-like picture quality suggestive of generation loss to evoke an uncanny surrealness and add to the discomfort of watching a sweating, crying, and salivating nervous wreck perform a telethon-style musical act — I’m still not quite sure if it’s funny, but it’s definitely visually arresting.

Honestly, there are so many more examples of Awesome Show‘s videographic eccentricity that I could link you all to. For whatever reason, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are “abso lutely” fascinated by the unpolished, unattractive aesthetic of bad public-access television, and hopefully I’ve started to illustrate how the series self-reflexively and comically exploits the hypermediated, stylistic excess of the videographic mode proposed by Caldwell to hold a (cracked, foggy, smudged) mirror to this lowly, oft ignored or merely glanced at televisual form.