I just finished an extraordinary late-70s TV show, The Sandbaggers. It’s British spy TV. While the show name-checks James Bond frequently the soul of it is more of a Le Carré thing. Intelligence as a series of dismal political battles between underpaid civil servants at the home office. Occasional forays into the field where everything is squalid or ambiguous and nothing grand is ever achieved.
The show hangs on Roy Marsden’s performance as Burnside, the Director of Operations at a British intelligence agency. The titular Sandbaggers are field agents, vaguely like the Bond 00 agents, but there’s never any swashbuckling action or romance. Occasional gritty affairs and some grim minor violence, all done on a low budget and with precious few location shots. If you ever enjoyed Blake's 7 or early Doctor Who the low production values will be familiar. So will the excellent quality of the writing and characters, there’s a lot of complexity and subtlety and more than a few surprises.
Mostly the show has aged well. It’s firmly set in late Cold War, there’s no hint of the extraordinary transition that happens in the 80s as the Soviet Union fell apart. Unfortunately the show is unimaginatively sexist with a lot of “men hitting on women in the workplace” nonsense. There’s one good female character in part of the show and Burnside’s secretaries are both good actresses with some sharp writing. But it feels dated even for its time.
I appreciated watching something at a slower and more thoughtful pace. I think the show is ripe for a reboot. Keep it set in the Cold War with roughly the same stories. But update the show: write better women and modernize the production. Then branch out and tell some new stories in Asia or South America or Africa.
Remember when TV was intelligent? I just finished watching the 1979 TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC’s masterful adaptation of John le Carré’s best spy novel. Such brilliant TV. Slow, deliberate. I particularly like how none of the ensemble cast are particularly attractive or pleasant, a bunch of middle aged doughy miserable men. Who are all fantastic actors playing nuanced roles, a real joy to watch. While the 2011 film was good, the TV show is great, and I highly recommend watching it if you can get your hands on it.
Naturally, Alec Guinness starring as Smiley owns the show. Hell of a performance, so much so that the actor somewhat stole character away from the author. But what a richly written character. A central conceit is that Smiley’s wife Ann sleeps around with other men, and all his colleagues know it, and he’s by turns humiliated, resigned, and accepting of his fate as a cuckold. Such misery! It’s delicious.
All of le Carré’s spy novels have misery at the center. They’re documents from the end of the British Empire, from when noble men with good intentions are plagued by bureaucracy, indecision, doubt, ambiguity. It all reminds me of a brilliant analysis on Bond and Bourne a Metafilter commenter made. James Bond was the product of the optimistic 50s and 60s, Jason Bourne is a product of the pessimistic individualistic 80s and 90s. Tinker, Tailor is another thing, the decrepit outcome of a crumbling English foreign service. It is well suited to a long, careful BBC treatment.
Sex House is must-watch Youtube from The Onion. It’s a parody of vapid reality TV like Big Brother or Jersey Shore: film a bunch of wacky people living together in a house and see what craziness ensues! Only this house is not benign, there’s a pall of a Cube horror over the sexy hijinks.
Each episode is about 8 minutes, there have been seven so far. The first couple are hysterical but seem a little dumb. Stick with it, for it goes to a far darker place.
As seen on Metafilter
Like most of my nerd friends I watched the exciting landing of the Mars Curiosity rover. What a show! Amazing tension, engineers accomplishing amazing things together, and it all worked! But I didn’t watch it on TV, I couldn’t. NASA TV did have it but Comcast in SF doesn’t carry that channel.
Instead I watched it as Internet video on my Xbox; Microsoft did an awesome job covering the event. Great picture on my big screen TV, Ken and me together on the couch with a glass of wine in hand. There were lots of other Internet viewing options; I had my iPad+AppleTV with UStream as a backup.
I also followed along on Twitter, the outpouring of excitement and joy from my friends was excellent commentary. NASA’s official Curiosity Rover account is good; charming and full of useful info. They did a great job posting instant photos. But even better than the official PR account was flight director Bobak Ferdowsi’s twitter (aka mohawk guy). I was watching him on TV while he was live tweeting the landing he was flight directing. Honest, personal stuff. Really great.
I like this future where events are edited in diverse ways and broadcast via hundreds of different Internet outlets. Between the no-TV Mars landing and the NBCFail Olympics we have two demonstrations that we don’t really need TV networks mediating live events. We’ve got a better way.
Is 2012 the last time the Summer Olympics will primarily be a television event? Will the Internet finally take over?
On my desktop I’m flipping between Archery, Fencing, and Judo streaming live from NBC’s excellent live streaming site. Fourteen live sports; some fully produced, some unenhanced, all with decent camera work and live editing and 1080p streaming. And all enhanced by tweet streams, and articles, and background stories, and blessedly free of the inane chatter of sports personalities and stupid tape delays. If I missed something there’s archive; full events, highlights, analysis, whatever I want online. I can also watch live video with NBC’s iPad app or use the tablet to get extra info while watching the TV. It’s all pretty great, I don’t even mind having NBC as the intermediary.
What’s missing from all this Internet viewing is the sense of a TV event, the whole family gathered around the electronic hearth watching something together. There’s still no great solution for playing Internet video on the big TV. It’s sort of doable as a hack but Internet-on-TV isn’t a mainstream thing, so it’s not a real product. Will it be by 2016? I sure hope so.
But streaming the video is easy; the real problem is producing an event for Internet. The main program needs to be edited, boiling down 100 hours of a day’s events to a 3 hour program. But it also needs to preserve some of the liveness and variety that is the hallmark of web surfing. And then mix that together with Twitter so I can share the experience in real time with folks all over the world. Tall order.
It’ll be interesting to see what emerges out of this year’s Olympics as media producers figure out how to integrate the Internet into event programming. I’m impressed with what NBC is delivering online this year but it feels transitional, like the very beginnings of something new.
Ken and I have been really enjoying watching True Blood, Alan Ball's new vampire serial on HBO. It's fantastic: ridiculous, over the top, and excitingly garish. Everything a vampire show should be.
The premise is that vampires have come out of the coffin and walk among us. Good vampires mainstream and drink synthetic blood, but there's bad evil vampires who hang out in Shreveport nightclubs and feed off of human groupie fangbangers. Our hero is human but telepathic and she makes friends with the misunderstood vampire who comes to their little town. She's a great character, very girly and innocent but also strong and smart.
A big part of the pleasure in the show is the small swamp town Louisiana setting. A town just big enough to have a fascinating ensemble cast but still be seriously backwards kay-zhawn. I particularly like the assortment of accents the voice coaches assembled: young Southern belle, aging Southern belle, New Orleans sophisticate, Atlanta sophisticate, gutter swamp Cajun, proud young black woman, crazy black mama, queeny-but-tough black gay guy, dumb redneck white hick. All living in the same town, and that's not counting the gentleman Civil War vampire, the creepy Boris Karloffs, and whatever weird-ass verbal tic sheriff J.F. Sebastian has. The characters and setting are great for someone like me who grew up with the mythology of the South.
Alan Ball also wrote a lot of Six Feet Under. But where that show was sympathetic and mature and subtle, True Blood is outrageous caricature and silly vampire genre stuff. With some Civil War nostalgia and commentary on civil rights thrown in the mix. All done incredibly well and very fun to watch. Recommended.
For a decade now people have been babbling about "digital convergence". The typical vision involves some proprietary set-top box from your company name here and the grandiose plan to be unify radio, TV, and Internet in one market-dominating service. That hasn't happened, but it turns out digital convergence is already here in our living rooms and no one has quite noticed yet. The driving factor isn't the consumer electronics manufacturers or the cable companies. It's Internet services like Amazon Unbox, Netflix, iTunes, and Youtube.
Youtube is now a full-fledged content provider on both Tivo and AppleTV. I can watch Youtube on my TV just like I watch Comcast. There's plenty of random things to browse and search as well as actual edited programming with YouTube's Featured Videos. YouTube on Tivo is great for bored channel surfing, particularly since you can quickly bounce around related videos. The video quality is atrocious, of course, but it starts playing fast and it feels like watching TV, not browsing the web.
YouTube isn't the only Internet service I can watch on my TV. Amazon's Unbox is also on Tivo with online rentals available for download right next to recording off the cable. Netflix is about to stream to the Xbox 360 if you haven't gotten around to spending $100 on a Roku player yet. Of course iTunes delivers TV and movies to AppleTV.
Internet companies are now making the end-run around cable and satellite distribution that's been predicted for years. If you have fast Internet in your home you can get something to watch Internet video for very cheap. The big sticking point is quality; streaming HD is still generally unavailable. The same A/V setups that can stream low-res content from the Internet are mostly being bought by people to play HD content, and watching a crappy 80 kbytes/sec YouTube video blown up to 1920p is a bad experience. Internet HD is doable; decent quality 720p AVI files are about 200kbytes/sec, within reach of home broadband. But it's a significant expense to provide that bandwidth to hundreds of thousands of customers. Also, I imagine content owners are loathe to license HD copies of their video for streaming. So traditional cable and satellite video distribution isn't doomed quite yet.