=Borrowed Tides= and =Alpha Centauri= right here

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Carl Sagan and the Stuff of the Cosmos

Carl Sagan died 10 years ago last week - at the age of 62. He was best known as the voice that humanized science, talking about "billions and billions" of stars in the universe to Johnny Carson and the millions of people who watched the Tonight Show. Fortunately, this was at the dawn of videotaping, and you can see some of Sagan's work on YouTube, where he is as mesmerizing about the human place in the universe as ever.

In 1977, when Sagan was young and in his prime and I was even younger, I was appointed Book Editor of an obscure journal named et cetera. As a way of kicking off my tenure - which turned out to be brief (I've always found editing essentially boring) - I wrote to the people I considered the five greatest thinkers of the day. Sagan was one of them. (Should I tell you my other four choices? OK - Marshall McLuhan, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, and Noam Chomsky - for his theories of language, not his politics).

I wrote to each of the authors, told them they had made my Top 5 list and why, and asked them to say a few words about their work. To Sagan, I wrote that it was his work as a philosopher and a popularizer, not his work as a hard scientist, that made me admire him - in particular, his view that, because we come from the cosmos, when we look back out at the cosmos with our telescopes, we are but the stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself. I still find that view thrilling, today.

Happily for me, all five cutting edge thinkers responded with a few paragraphs, mainly thanking me for the honor, etc. But Sagan said something more: he said I shouldn't discount his work as a hard scientist, because that's what he was, and his philosophy and his appearances on television were all a part of that.

And that's stuck with me too. Because, whatever else Sagan may have intended by it, to me it said that, hey, going on the Tonight Show and talking with Johnny may be as much a part of a great cosmologist's work as analyzing the light received from the stars. There's no contradiction, in other words, between the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of knowledge.

And it does make sense, doesn't it? Carl Sagan was a star here on Earth, because of what he saw when he looked at the stars above. The stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself.

A few of Sagan's books:

Billions and Billions

The Dragons of Eden

Pale Blue Dot

And my podcast about Carl Sagan:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

talkin' on the cell phone on Discovery

Cellphone by Paul LevinsonActually, I'll be talking about the cell phone - not on the cell phone - on a new Discovery Channel tv series this Wednesday, but I thought talkin' on had a better, ah, ring to it...

Here are the details:

This Wednesday, December 27, 1PM (Eastern Standard Time) on the Discovery Channel: The Inside Story of the Cell Phone, featuring me and a handful of who knows who much more knowledgeable experts.

Here's What I Know About It: I was taped for more than an hour last June (2006) at the Museum of Science in Flushing, Queens (New York City). It was an excellent interview - but you never know what will survive to the show and what will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. The folks who produced this and interviewed me, though, seemed savvy.

The hour-long show is part of a new Discovery series, The Inside Story of ...

What I Especially Like About This Showing: It immediately follows The Inside Story of the iPod - this is bound to draw a lot of viewers (I think Steve Jobs will be interviewed on it)...

What I'm Not Too Thrilled About: 1 pm? Who in their right mind is watching television then? Well, I will, and hopefully you (or set your TiVo or VCR) ... and I'm sure the show will be rebroadcast (I'll tell you when I know).

All in All: I'm pleased the show will be on. As I wrote in my 2004 book, Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium, and How It Has Transformed Everything, I think the cell phone is the most revolutionary medium we have going today. It's not only a vehicle of conversation - spoken and written - but it's giving us everything the web has to offer (tv, movies, radio, podcasts, blogs, websites, etc) and lets us take that with us, wherever we may happen to go. (Are any if you reading this on a device that fits in your hand? Let me know.) With every new month, there is less and less difference between cell phones, ipods, and little computers. I wrote a long time ago that, someday, anyone would be able to get any information that was ever created, from anywhere in the world, anytime ... and that day is almost here, courtesy of the cell phone.

I'd say I'd wave hello to you on the show, but that would require a time machine ... I hope you like it, in any case, if you get a chance to see it.

Added in January, 2007 - and here's a 4-minute clip of my appearance on the show ...

Relevant links:

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Only Idiots Don't Watch Television...

"Only Idiots Don't Watch Television" was my original title for the following op-ed that I wrote for Newsday this past July, 2006. They changed it to the more dignified title you see below - taken from the next-to-last line of my op-ed - but that's ok, because I do indeed believe that we're seeing a new golden age of television (I say so in the op-ed) - indeed, I've taken to calling our era television's platinum age.

Because, if anything, television has gotten even better since the summer. The first half of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, just concluded last week, was the best science-fiction I've ever seen on television (or at least, the first part of it was - as good as the best Star Trek episodes, and better than most). The Wire concluded a low-key but outstanding season. Kidnapped, foolishly cancelled by NBC, just concluded last night on nbc.com, and it was a superb series - intelligent, stylish, suspenseful. NBC does, at least, deserve credit for fielding it in the first place. Dexter, which I wrote about in a blog post here last week, is a marvelously unusual cop show. Brotherhood is an excellent new political drama. Sleeper Cell, which I also wrote about last week, offered an excellent second season. All three were on Showtime.

And in January, new seasons of Rome (on HBO) and 24 (on Fox) begin. I can hardly wait. In the meantime, as the cold winds of late December blow, here's another look at the view from this past summer...

TV's new golden age

Paul Levinson is professor and chairman of communication and media studies at Fordham University. His latest novel is "The Plot to Save Socrates."

July 23, 2006

It used to be called the "idiot box." Critics have been muttering for years that we're a nation of "videots," that television's been rotting our brains. But who are the idiots now?

People who saw "Rome" on HBO this fall? The opening credits alone were a masterpiece of music and animation. Or perhaps the video dopes are those who just finished watching the next-to-concluding season of "The Sopranos" or watched the past three seasons of "The Wire," or I forget how many seasons of "Da Ali G Show," all also on HBO, or the new "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi Channel.

All of these shows have been lionized by critics. Tim Goodman of The San Francisco Chronicle called the acting in "The Wire" both "virtuoso" and "phenomenal." David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said of "The Sopranos": "If this isn't art, then neither is Mozart." The series won four Emmys in 2004 and has been nominated for many more. "Ali G" has been nominated dozens of times. "Rome" boasts Jonathan Stamp, former BBC executive producer for history and archaeology, as its history consultant. "Battlestar Galactica" has lifted science-fiction on television to a new level of political sophistiction, sensuality and style.

Awards in themselves are certainly no sure indication of quality. But, combined with the raves of critics and cinema-level writing, acting, and production, the achievements of this new age of television are unmistakable.

Who are the nitwits, now? People who saw or missed those shows?

It's not all cable - the networks have been enjoying a golden age, too. "Lost" on ABC and "24" on Fox are two prime examples - "24" led the pack in Emmy nominations announced earlier this month. And in all cases, the availability of these series on DVD, which allows the viewer to see multiple episodes of a series without commercial interruption, is fueling the new excellence of television.

But it's not entirely new, either. There have been great programs throughout TV's history, ranging from "Have Gun, Will Travel" to "Star Trek" to "All in the Family" to "Hill Street Blues" to "ER," to name just a representative sampling over the decades.

What's different now, though, are the wings of new media that, rather than flying away from television, are lifting it to new heights. Not only cable and DVDs, but iPODs, which offer downloadable episodes, are making television easier to watch - and better. Why better? Because when people were obligated to watch television on inflexible schedules dictated by the networks, many shows were pitched to the lowest common denominator. The cardinal rule of that first, now bygone, age of television was "thou shalt not offend or confuse." But when people can see television on their own schedules - whether via on-demand cable, DVD, TiVo or iPODs - television can take chances. It can hire topnotch character actors like Ciaran Hinds, who last year played a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated "Munich" and starred splendidly as Caesar in "Rome."

TV can now cater to more individual tastes. Its programs must still live or die based on their rating shares, but the pie is now split so many ways that a smaller piece can go a lot further than in decades past.

Like books and movies, TV can now take real risks to achieve excellence. It can try a prime-time show on polygamy, such as HBO's "Big Love," or a sitcom about a suburban school mom who sells marijuana, like Showtime's "Weeds."

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan applied the term "rear-view mirror" to help explain our perception of new media. He meant that we see new technology through lenses ground in the past. The automobile was first called "the horseless carriage" and radio "the wireless" before they broke free of their pasts, attained names in their own right and claimed their destiny.

How many people who still think TV is only for dullards and laggards are seeing it through a rear-view mirror, looking at it backward, focused on network domination and stick-figure characterization? Was that what Harper's editor Thomas de Zengotita had in mind when he called cable TV - along with the Internet and DVDs - a "vast goo of meaningless stimulation"? Maybe TV needs a new name.

But, by television or any other name, the much-maligned tube is finally achieving its potential not only to entertain but inspire.

It used to be thought that watching television distracted us from more noble intellectual pursuits like reading. But, to the contrary, it seems that an intellect charged by any medium is all the more hungry for new adventures of the mind. Literacy is on the rise. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found an 8 percent increase in reading abilities in the past decade. "Harry Potter" and "The Da Vinci Code" are happening in this new golden age of television. Its rising tide will likely be lifting many more boats to come.

Relevant links:

The Plot to Save Socrates
"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly "a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News "Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book

Thursday, December 14, 2006

first place to Dexter

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[Updated December 17, 2006, after Season 1 finale.]

Dexter concluded on Showtime this weekend. I think it is easily the best new show on cable or network this season.

Nothing else is easy about the show, and that is what makes it so powerful and appealing. Dexter works for the Miami police. His specialty is bloodwork. He's a master at his job. That's because he really loves his work. And he gives the people of Florida a little something extra: he moonlights as a serial killer of sociopaths and psychopaths.

We have seen serial killers and vigilante killers before, but none mixed into the puzzle that is Dexter, played to subtle and intricate perfection by Michael C. Hall, who received a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination for his acting on the show. On the one hand, it's hard to identify with a character who gets such satisfaction from killing people and cutting them up - even if they are bad people. On the other hand, there is almost a lovable, irresistible quality about Dexter. He has a gentleness, and his cool detachment from life often makes him a perfect gentlemen, and even an oddly considerate and protective boyfriend.

This first season had lots of good trimmings. Excellent cop details and intra-squad rivalries. Deep background on what makes Dexter tick, including a father who recognized Dexter's problem, and taught him how to sublimate his urges into something that is at least helpful to society. And a great evil adversary, in a serial killer who is Dexter's equal or better in his craft, but has none of Dexter's redeeming qualities. The finale wrapped it all up just as we might have hoped in a story that excels in double-edged swords and deeply amibiguous heroes. Evil was dispatched, heroes were confirmed, yet we shudder for their future even as we breathe a ragged sigh of relief. Season 2 in 2007 should be some piece of work.

Showtime is really starting to give HBO a run for its money in the original drama niche. Brotherhood, which Dexter replaced on Showtime, was far and away the best drama on tv in the Summer and early Fall. Sleeper Cell just finished a fine week-long season of intense television on Showtime a few hours ago.

All part of our platinum age of television.

5-minute podcast of this review

See also my preview review of Dexter, Season Two: Dexter's Back!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wide Awake for Sleeper Cell

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[updated Dec 17 with finale of Season 2; what follows gives away plot details]

Just finished watching the complete 8-hour new season of Sleeper Cell on Showtime - pretty much all in one sitting.

That in itself is extraordinary and indicative of one of the new ways of seeing a television series - as a long movie of eight hours (or, in the case of 24, of 24 hours - which you usually need two or three sessions of viewing to see).

Showtime deserves credit for putting the whole series up On-Demand right away. This certainly beats waiting for the regular showing to be over before you can see the whole series - which in the case of Sleeper Cell would have been eight days, as this series is being shown daily - or waiting for the DVD, which of course means you have to wait much longer.

The series itself had some excellent moments - and three outstanding episodes - the third, the seventh, and the eighth, if you'd like to know. They had some jolting twists, and one major, very interesting and original innovation in the pacing - a thoughtful and provocative departure from what you would expect of a finale.

Indeed, the story for this season could well have ended with Episode 7 - the single best episode - which featured the determent of the major terrorist plot (a dirty radioactive bomb in the Hollywood Bowl), but the success of another (suicide bomber in Las Vegas), as well as the heroic death of Gail, Darwyn's love. This was one of the more breathtaking episodes I've seen on television.

But Sleeper Cell continued with Episode 8, which was really a coda to the first seven episodes. Darwyn and Farik have a final but inconclusive confrontation overseas - which felt for all the world like Darwyn confronting Osama. And if this episode wasn't quite as strong as Episode 7, Sleeper Cell nonetheless deserves praise for going there, and ending this season with a thoughtful portrait of the eternal, never-ending contest between good and evil.

The acting was fine - Michael Ealy put in a strong performance as Darwyn the undercover agent, and Odeh Fehr was powerful and chilling as Farik the terrorist leader - same as in the first season. There were a few soft episodes in the middle - meaning, they could have been cut or reduced with no real harm to the story - but all in all the story was gripping on a variety of social and personal levels.

Highly recommended - especially in this usually lean time for worthwhile tv viewing.

Listen to the podcast of this review at Levinson news clips

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Deja well worth Vu

The only thing not close to perfect about Deja Vu is its name. The movie isn't at all about the pyschological feeling of deja vu. It is, at first, about some very interesting surveillance technology, and for that reason the name makes good enough sense. But it is most profoundly about time travel, pure and simple (or maybe: pure and complicated), which has little do with deja vu, and it gets very high marks for respecting the complexity of the paradox of attempting go back into the past to prevent something bad from happening.

That's paradoxical, because if you succeed, you will have eliminated the very motive that you had for going back into the past in the first place.

Denzel Washington plays the hero with his customary cool and power. Paula Patton is sensitive and compelling as the heroine. Current New Orleans - post-Katrina - makes an excellent location, and the movie worked it into the action with just the right eye for detail.

Most satisfying for me - as a long-time fan of science fiction movies - was the way plot built from hi-tech wizardry that just might be actually possible today to techniques that could actually have an impact on the past to ....

Well, this is where I'll stop, so I don't give anything away. But suffice to say that, in order for a time travel story to work, very clear rules of engagment - in terms of what is possible with the given technology - need to be posted, and then respected. And the plot should be sprinkled with a clue here and there, so we can look back and say, ah yes, with the wisdom of hindsight, that's what was actually going on... Deja Vu does almost of this very well (and, when it doesn't, it gives plausible explanations).

The movie was so good, I'll want to view it again...

XXXXXXXXX S P O I L E R S Below - Don't Read On Unless You've Seen the Movie

Here's my explanation (of course, the right one) for what happens in the end: First, the movie begins with DenzelOne. He is one who investigates the explosion, looks into Claire's murder, etc. When he finally travels two hours back in time near the end of the movie, he creates a universe in which there are two of him: DenzelOne, who travelled back in time; and DenzelTwo, who hasn't traveled, and is living his life as a ATF investigator two hours before the action in the movie begins. DenzelOne dies in the car in the water. DenzelTwo comes to investigate the explosion that almost but did not happen, and will live happily ever with Claire (who does not die in this universe).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The New James Bond - Without the Golden Pun

Actually, I thought Daniel Craig was great as James Bond in Casino Royal - I thought the movie was was excellent, too - but I missed two things in the new movie: gadgets and puns.

I'll save the gadgets and Q for another post. Here, I'll just lament the loss of puns. There were so few of them in Casino Royal that you could hear a pun drop. In fact, I heard only one (but I won't tell you what it is, because that would spoil the fun, and give away an important part of the plot).

The puns were always one of my favorite parts of the Bond movies - Sean Connery saying Lotta Lenya got her kicks (she wielded a shoe with a knife), Roger Moore saying he was keeping the old British end up as he made love to the heroine in a boat under the closing credits ... you know, that sort of bling.

Now, it makes good sense that Craig's Bond doesn't say many of those things - he's just starting out, and the whole point of the movie is that he doesn't yet have the polish and sophistication of the later Bond. He's not sure of his drinks or his clothes or even his poker cards. He's more vulnerable to women. He's driving a Ford in the first part of the movie.

So we can forgive him and the movie makers if they left him with barely a verbal barb. Who knows, maybe the world has outgrown that kind of repartee, which was most in vogue when Cole Porter was the top, a good two decades before the first Bond movie, anyway.

But I miss the license to kill which if it didn't make you die of laughter at least left you with a chuckle. Let's hope we haven't had the last laugh on Bond.

Listen to the podcast of this review: The Man Without the Golden Pun

See also Quantum of Solace Felt Like HBO or Showtime - High Praise

The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book

more about The Plot to Save Socrates...

Get your own at Profile Pitstop.com

Read the first chapter of The Plot to Save Socrates
.... FREE!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

TV Roundup: The Field in Mid-November

reposting this here - the original post on twice upon a rhyme on November 9 is getting lots of attention...

also check my latest Light On Light Through podcast on this - also available on iTunes

Time for another assessment of the current tv season. We're in the November sweeps - one of the months which advertisers use to decide how much commercials on tv are worth. The networks - all of tv - are thus more attuned than usual to getting the highest possible ratings - the greatest number of viewers.

I realized, the other night, that my tv viewing can basically be divided into three categories. At one end, I drop whatever else I'm doing, rush home early from dinner, put aside writing a blog post or listening to a podcast, to watch a tv show when it's broadcast live. At the other end, I'm feeling as I look at the tv that I'm wasting my time, and just about anything else would be more enjoyable or productive or of value or interest to me. Then there's everything else in between - which translates into I like a show enough to tape it and watch it later, catch a replay, but not enough to let it direct the schedule of my life.

So, with that in mind, here's how I see the current tv field:

Battlestar Galactica:

Well, as I've mentioned many times, I think it's the best show on television right now. The show took a daring turn last season, introducing a radically new plot thread at the end of the final episode. The thread was wrapped up almost completely in the first part of the current season - another unexpected move. I had lunch the other day with Bob Hughes - entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal. We had a great conversation, in which I indicated that The Wire was the best show on television about the real world, because Battlestar Galactica, a better show this year, is science fiction. Battlestar Galactica is about the real world, Hughes replied. And he's completely right. The show is so good that, not only do I put aside everything else to watch it, I'm almost willing to do the same for the many blog posts, message boards, and podcasts percolating about the show.

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Showtime's new show about a serial killer who takes out other serial killers is, so far, the best new tv this season. Michael C. Hall - of Six Feet Under fame - plays the part to chilling, sometimes even humorous, perfection. I've never quite seen anything like this on television. A serial killer with a social conscience... He has trouble relating to people - because he so detached - but is nice to his girlfriend. (Note added November 16: The shows raises the important ethical issue of whether a serial killer of serial killers is ultimately a good or a bad human being - worth seeing for that reason alone.)

Heroes: NBC's surprise hit, which had a nice recent cover on Entertainment Weekly. Sort of X-Men meets Unbreakable, but more charming. Highlights are a great Japanese character with a realistic (as far as I know) portrayal of Japanese culture, a single mother who does web-cast porn, and a literally indestructible cheerleader. But not all the heroes are all that interesting. Still, there is enough that appeals to me that I'll keep watching - if not always on its prime showing on Monday, then its replay on the Sci-Fi Channel on Friday (two hours before Battlestar Galactica). (Note added November 16: I'm enjoying this show more and more - especially because Hiro is a time traveller. Heroes gets more complex with every episode - a very good progression.)

Kidnapped: The merciless dictates of ratings first caused NBC to move the show to Saturday night, and then to a life solely on the nbc.com web page. At least that's better than what happened to Coronet Blue, the classic fragment of a lost tv series from the 1960s (which I'll likely be writing about on some quiet weekend). Kidnapped has intelligence, style, subtlety, and deserved better than this - though, who knows, maybe life online is not such a bad life these days.

Lost: Came back after a disappointing second season with a pretty good first third of a third season. But, I don't know, the show could have been better this season, too. The flashbacks had almost no new information. The action in the original camp was boring. Mixed into this were some excellent threads about the Others, about Kate, Sawyer, and Jack ... but the show still feels to me like it's in a little bit of trouble. We're still without answers to most of the crucial puzzles of the first season - such as why characters who presumably met for the first time on the doomed plane had intersecting lives years before the plane... (see my twice upon a rhyme blog post on this from about six months ago)

The Nine: It's on right after Lost, but the possibility of even one new message or e-mail is enough to pull me away from this show. The main problem, for me, is the show has not really progressed very far since the bank robbery which got the ball rolling. I suspect it will soon have fewer than nine viewers...

Six Degrees: Another show that started off pretty good, but doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Like Heroes, it has an uneven mix of very appealing and somewhat boring, obvious characters. But it lacks the sparkle of Heroes, and its New York City ambience is not as good as the streets in Kidnapped.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Bring back 77 Sunset Strip from the late 1950s! Studio 60 had a few good moments, but the Aaron Sorkin banter weighs heavy. I don't dislike this show as much as do some critics, but NBC skipped a couple of weeks for this show, and I barely knew it was missing.

The Wire: Well, you all know how much I enjoy this show. And though this season is not the best for The Wire, without Stringer Bell, it is still outstanding, superb, television. And that opening song - "Down in the Hole". Every season I'm a little annoyed when they put up a new version in the opening credits. And every season, after 3 orr 4 episodes, I'm liking the new version the best.... (Note to blogspot readers: See my "The Wire Without Stringer," a post from a few weeks ago on my twice upon a rhyme blog. And the listen to the Light On Light Through podcast of "The Wire Without Stringer," for a 60-second preview of Idris Elba's new song, "Johnny Was". Idris played Stringer Bell.)

So, there you have it ... I'll have another round-up in the next few months - by which time, Jack Bauer will back on the screen...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Enjoyable Trouble with Time Travel

I've been thinking more about time trave than usual - I always think about it at least a little - because I've been enjoying Heroes on NBC, and the main reason is one of the most appealing characters, Hiro, can bend space and time. In other words, he can teleport and time travel.

Now teleportation, though extraordinary, is really just an extension of what we already do, all the time - move across distances, or space. As in walking across the street or taking a plane. Time travel, on the other hand, is something we never do. That is, we live forward in time, but never go backward, and never go forward any faster, certainly not instantly.

Which is what makes time travel such an immensely enjoyable vehicle for fiction. You can travel a day or a year into the future and see what you're doing then, and what's happening in the world. You can travel to the past and have a drink or a cup of tea with your great-great grandmother. (You can go back in the past and try to save Socrates...)

Except ... you'd need to make sure that if you did meet your great-great-grandmother, it wasn't before she met your great-great-grandfather. Because what if your meeting somehow distracted the two from ever meeting... Where you would be then?

Paradoxes like this are what make time-travel stories so much fun - and I think they're also what makes time travel impossible. Sure, you could come up with scientific possibilities, such as the creation of an alternative universe every time you travel into the past, which would allow you to change past A (your great-great-grandparents met and had children) into past B (they did not, because of your trip to the past), which would allow you (a product of A) to travel to the past and avoid the paradox of doing away with circumstances that allowed you to travel to the past (because the A that created you would still exist - all that would happen is a new B would be created) ... but, whew, creation of such alternative universes every time you travel seems even more farfetched than time travel!

And travel to the future has its own devastating problems. If I travelled even just a day into the future, and saw what you were wearing, would that mean you had no choice about what clothes you put on tomorrow? I don't know about you, but I'm rather sure that I have free will - at least, about what kind of shirt I wear. (Whether I exercise that will well or not is, of course, another story.)

So, in the end, I'm afraid that we'll never be able to travel in time, except in our minds and our fiction...

On the other hand, I just could be an agent from the future, doing my best to disguise my tracks...

Useful links:

Deja Well Worth Vu blog post review of 2006 Deja Vu movie

see elsewhere on Infinite Regress for reviews of Heroes and Lost episodes...

Time Travel in Fact and Fiction free 20-minute podcast

The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book

Monday, November 13, 2006

my other blog & podcast

Brief initial post to welcome you to this blog - which I expect will be mostly about television and movies. I love responding to comments, so by all means jump in.

You also might find my other blog of interest - twice upon a rhyme - more or less weekly commentary on new techs, popular culture, tv, movies, Wikipedia, outer space, politics, the works, that I've been writing since March 2006. Come over any time and jump into those discussions.

And, if you enjoy podcasts, give my Light On Light Through a try - also free on iTunes - pretty much the same as my two blogs, but with a little music, phone-ins, and the occasional sound effect...

You can also subscribe at http://lightonlightthrough.com/rss

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Of Asterisks, Black Swans, Thom Yorke, and D*ck

So, Thom Yorke has a haunting new song - "Black Swan" - to be released on his Eraser CD in July. You won't hear it on any radio station - at least, not the non-satellite kind.

Radiohead never did too well in airplay, anyway. But there's a more explicit, illicit reason you won't hear Yorke's plaintively beautiful song. "This is f*cked up, f*cked up," the refrain says, over and sadly sweetly over again.

The FCC was just empowered to increase fines for allegedly "indecent" broadcasting by 10 times their previous amounts. Even with the original amounts, no radio station would want to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars for repeated offenses.

But it's not just radio and TV. Our society is so provincial that you can't just come out and write "f*ck" in most publications - that is, you can write "f*ck" but not the actual word.

Which is interesting. Because, in addition to writing "f*ck," you can further write that the asterisk stands for a "u". You can say that on the air, too. You can also go the "freakin'," "f'ing," and "f-word" routes - in print or in speech - but you can't write or say the actual word. Even though "f*ck" and the other substitutions are all saying exactly that same thing.

Just who would be hurt by seeing or hearing the actual word? Kids? I bet it's a rare 9-year old in America these days who hasn't heard the word at least as often as your average man or woman in Congress. (Or maybe not - VP D*ck Cheney did tell Senator Patrick Leahy to "go f*ck" himself just outside the floor of the Senate a few years ago.)

Well, we can all hear "Black Swan" on the Web, and soon on the new Thom Yorke CD. We'll no doubt be able to hear it on Sirius Satellite Radio, too, where Howard Stern had to go to continue his show in the way he and his fans wanted. Except Sirius costs money. So, thank you, FCC, Congress, and President B*sh, for this new sin tax.

We'll also be able to hear "Black Swan" over the closing credits of A Scanner Darkly in July - Richard Linklater's rendition of the Philip K. Dick story. Thank goodness the F*ds haven't gotten to the movie theaters yet.

But the FCC is ushering in a new Dark Ages for non-satellite radio and non-cable television - programming them, in effect, out of cutting-edge artistic relevance. And they're sharpening their talons for cable and satellite radio, too. After all, it's unconstitutional - in violation of the First Amendment - for the government to go after broadcasters, so why stop there? Why let an artist paint the human condition with a full palette of options, when you can go in an outlaw the most vivid colors?

It's fucking ridiculous.

Friday, June 23, 2006

How Star Trek Liberated Television

This essay was first published in Boarding the Enterprise, edited by David Gerrold and Robert J. Sawyer, BenBella Books, 2006.

How Star Trek Liberated Television

“Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dust…”
-- G.W.F. Hegel, 1770-1831

by Paul Levinson

Hegel was talking about how the greatest writings of the classical world –- those that would have the most lasting impact on our popular culture –- took shape as the civilizations around them started to decline. He was thinking about Socrates and Plato in Athens, Cicero and the Roman Republic, Augustine and the end of the Empire.

Let’s think about Star Trek and the decline of network television.

The twenty-first century has not been kind to traditional network television in America. Overall viewership has been falling for more than a decade. The premiere of The Sopranos several seasons ago drew more viewers than any program on the networks. A mere handful of millions separates Fox News on cable from network news on free TV. Although the Nielsen ratings in the Fall of 2005 show more people watching television than ever before, it’s often not the networks they are watching.

It wasn’t always so. Television entered the 1970s at the height of the networks’ oligarchic power. CBS, NBC, and ABC accounted for 90 percent of the prime-time audience back then, which watched television on some 36 million TV sets. This translated into more than 100 million people. In contrast, the four networks today (the original three plus Fox) often have trouble attracting more than half that number of viewers in total.

The competition back then was as fierce as it is now. In order to attract the top advertising dollar, networks had to field a reliable 30-percent share -- a consistent third of all network viewers. Programs that achieved less lived on short leashes, regardless of their quality and the passion of the their audiences. The original Star Trek on NBC was such a program. It was one of the best series I had ever seen on TV. And it was cancelled in 1969, after just a three-year run. The reason: its ratings were slipping. Even worse: the majority of its viewers were children and teenagers, not the kind of audience that advertisers were looking for the 1960s. In those days, kids didn't have much purchasing power. And they spent what they had on products not advertised on prime-time TV.

I was one of those kids (well, I was 19 when Star Trek debuted on NBC TV in 1966). I was furious and heart-broken when it was cancelled.

We all know what happened afterwards to Star Trek. How it first returned in the afterlife of syndication, on local, unimportant stations throughout the country, at midnights on Sunday on Channel 11 in New York City, at after-school hours and other decidedly non-prime time showings in other cities. How it inspired a following that generated four subsequent television series and ten motion pictures, and propelled Star Trek into the popular culture zenith inhabited by the creations of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.

This is the story of how that syndication not only launched Star Trek into mythic levels in our popular culture, but signaled the beginning of the end for the network domination of television. From The Sopranos to Rome, also on HBO, from MTV to CNN and Fox News to the Discovery and the Sci-Fi Channels, all that we see on cable today is the result of Star Trek’s amazing off-network voyages.

Syndication and Star Trek

Syndication before Star Trek was an afterthought for viewers. The pleasures it afforded were akin to those you got when you drove a friend’s jalopy, or enjoyed food you took home from a fine restaurant the night before.

Other enormously successful reruns had only a fraction of Star Trek's impact. "To the moon, Alice, to the Moon!" is no doubt recognizable to countless viewers around the world who have seen The Honeymooners in reruns since its CBS prime-time debut on a Saturday evening in 1955. So is the theme music from Bonanza. But only one movie has been made of The Honeymooners -- with Cedric the Entertainer in 2005 -- and no movies have been made of Bonanza. No further series carried forth the story of The Honeymooners, and Bonanza had one failed "prequel," The Ponderosa, on cable TV in 2001. Lost in Space, on CBS from 1965 through 1968, did manage a movie adaptation, but it and the original series have had little to no effect on our popular culture.

I Love Lucy is the high watermark of this kind of syndication. The show began filming for CBS in 1951, continued for 23 years in one or another version, and soon was syndicated all over America and the world. By 1974, Viacom had 179 syndicated episodes of Lucy in the field. In New York City alone, you could see reruns of Lucy on three different local TV networks -- in fact, twice a day on one of them. Lucy is as hilarious today as she was in the 50s, and you can see her in a fair number of old movies, too. But of course there can be no new Lucy series, and nor are there any sections in bookstores stocked with paperbacks that tell the story of her further or alternate adventures.

What did Star Trek have that all these other shows did not? It was not only the story line. It was the specific way in which Star Trek broke into syndication. It fit none of the patterns. It broke all of the molds. Unlike Lucy and Bonanza, which were huge successes throughout much of their prime-time original runs, Star Trek was a ratings disappointment. Indeed, Lucy and Bonanza were still riding high in prime-time network television during their syndications -- which of course far outlived their original lives -- but Star Trek was dead and all-but-buried when its syndication began in 1970. Its success in syndication was thus a slap in the face of network television and its ratings logic from the very beginning.

But Star Trek’s syndication also came along at just the right time in the history of television.

Diversification of Media

The history of media shows a very interesting pattern that has repeated itself many times. When new mass media start out, they attempt to please everyone. They create entertainment, report news, in a way that is designed to appeal to as many people as possible. They are the most “mass” of mass media at these outsets.

But sooner or later, this changes. The first American magazines that rolled off the printing presses in the 1840s were intended for all readers. Harper’s had something for men, women, children, outdoors types, bookworms, everyone. A hundred years later, a hundred different magazines on newsstands beckoned to fisherman, gardeners, coin collectors, doll collectors, businessmen, housewives and almost every conceivable taste and interest. Radio underwent a similar, if faster, development. Stations in the 1920s and 30s broadcast news, talk, sports, all kinds of music, and soap operas and mystery shows, to boot. By the 1960s, we had stations devoted entirely to rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, classical music, or talk.

Television from its inception did everything faster than every other medium. It was in ninety percent of American homes by the end of the 1950s -- a decade after its commercial introduction –- a record for adoption still not exceeded by personal computers and cell phones.

Although few people realized it, television’s sped-up evolution made it ready for diversification by the early 1970s. Certainly the network executives had no idea what was coming. Having pulled the rug out from under Hollywood and the neighborhood movie theater in the 1950s – Hollywood moguls hugely underestimated the appeal of staying at home and watching TV – the network execs made the same kind of mistake about cable. They overlooked the public’s appetite for specialized choices in TV viewing, and how cable could feed it.

Star Trek in syndication provided the first example. In retrospect, a science fiction show was an ideal vehicle for this maiden voyage.

Although the 1950s is known as the “golden age” of science fiction, the sales of its leading authors, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, were far from golden back then. On television, Captain Video and His Video Rangers ran on the third-rate Dumont TV network from 1949 through 1955. Actually, Dumont was fourth-rate - always struggling, limping far behind the big three networks. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh kindly describe it as "perpetually impoverished" in their 1979 Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows. Captain Video's budget was so pinched that it provided the grand total of $25 per week for props! (That's right - twenty-five dollars - I didn't leave off any zeros.) The Twilight Zone had considerably more success in its original 30-minute format on CBS from 1959-1962, but failed to make the transition to an hour-long show.

Given this ambiguous status of science fiction – the mixed signals it gave to the popular culture – it is entirely understandable that NBC first took a chance with Star Trek, and then was quick to cancel it. What happened afterward to the networks is also understandable, but only now with the wisdom of hindsight.

The Time and the Place: Guerrilla Television

How can TV – how does any medium – cater to a specialized taste? How can it satisfy that appetite in a way that invites the rest of the public to join the party? What is the best time and place for such presentations?

The thing about syndication is that it had no time and place - nothing appointed for everyone at the same time, at least not nationally. It was off or under the radar. It went totally contrary to the mainstream miracle of network television, in which everyone in the country, or at least 30 or so million viewers, watched the same show at the same time. In its heyday, network television reveled in everyone arranging calendars, making a point of staying home at a particular time, to watch a hit show.

But even locally here in New York City, Star Trek's schedule in syndication was sketchy. It was on midnight on Sunday, but sometimes it was also there on Saturday.

I remember calling my girlfriend Tina, long since my wife. "Did you see 'City on the Edge of Forever' last night? I tuned in in the middle, and didn't want to wake you."

"When will be it on again?"

Who knew? Maybe a year, maybe next week, if you took into account the Saturday schedule, but who knew what that was or how long it would be in effect?

The people at Channel 11 presumably knew, though come to think of it, maybe not. I'm sure I saw "The Trouble with Tribbles" at least three times in syndication in one year, and "Spock's Brain" twice ("You'll get nothing more from her, Jim -- hers is the mind of a child!"). Where was the sense in that?

It didn't make much sense but that was its charm – and its power. Marshall McLuhan's celebrated 1960s distinction between "hot" and "cool" media explains part of it. Hot media put everything out clearly and precisely. But once we get it, hear it, read it -- like a newspaper -- we have little further interest in it. We already know its stories. We know what to expect. Cool media are more low-profile, ambiguous, imprecise. We therefore can never get enough of them. We can't get our fill because we can never imbibe them completely. Star Trek's banishment from the networks immersed it in a dark, cool pool of our memories. The vagaries of syndication brought it a lot closer -- yet still somehow always just a bit beyond our calendar and reach. You couldn’t really make a plan or precise appointment with yourself to see it. But you also knew that it was somehow always there, anyway. Like some ubiquitous, invisible being, it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Many people worship such beings. Star Trek's fans felt that way
about Star Trek in syndication.

And cable television was just about ready to pick up on that.

Dumont Avenged!

Ironically, cable was introduced in State College, Pennsylvania in the 1950s as a way of providing TV network programming to people beyond broadcast range. The town of State College is located right smack dab in the middle of that wide state, too far from Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west to receive their signals via air. But it is a big college community, and the television networks and their advertisers wanted to reach it. The answer was cable. Like FM radio when it was first introduced in the 1940s, cable was thought of as an adjunct, an extra channel, for mainstream broadcasting.

This did not change until the early 1980s, when CNN, MTV, and HBO began offering programs not available at all on the networks. This was less than a decade after Star Trek in syndication had shown the good sense of providing a program no longer available on network TV. Cable was the brain-child of many people, all of whom were aware of the success of Star Trek in syndication. Only a TV-exec confined to a planetoid around Alpha Centauri could not have been. But at least one of the great pioneers of cable in the 1980s had a more explicit connection: Star Trek reruns had been a big hit on Ted Turner’s WTBS television station in Atlanta in the 1970s. He had seen first hand, in his profit-and-loss columns, that there was not only life but spectacular impact beyond network TV. You need only to hear Darth Vader as the voice of CNN to appreciate how deeply Ted Turner was tuned into science fiction and its power in the real world.

When a medium begins to falter, it has no shortage of would-be successors nipping at its heels. Videotaping technology was also invented in the mid-1950s, and soon replaced the feeble kinescope, which at first was the only way of making copies of television shows. Among the early successes of video was the taping of the 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen" debate for broadcast on NBC. But these Ampex videotape devices were used by the networks to enhance their programming – like cable TV in those days, videotaping was an adjunct of network TV, not a stand-alone medium – and the taping devices were in any case not available to the general public. An Ampex recorder had a price tag of $45,000 in 1958.

Sony came to the rescue of videotape and television viewers starved for diversity and more control over their television in the mid-1970s – just as Star Trek was beginning to make a big name for itself in the backwaters of syndicated television. VCRs introduced by Sony were intended for the viewing public, and cost less than one-tenth of the 1958 Ampex. As demand quickened, prices dropped to below $2000 per device. Still no bargain, but affordable to the upper middle classes. Soon VCRs would be in reach of everyone, and become standard gear for television.

When the television networks finally realized what was happening, they were horrified at the prospect. People were watching rented movies rather than prime-time shows on their TV screens. Even worse, viewers could tape a program, play it back, and speed past the commercials. So upset were the networks about this possibility that they went all the way to the Supreme Court – in 1984, as cable was first beginning to flex its muscles as an independent medium - in an attempt to make it illegal for viewers to videotape television shows. (So much for corporate network support of the First Amendment, when it can hurt their pocketbooks.) The Supreme Court, in a rare display of good judgment about the media in the twentieth-century, wisely decided not to give the networks what they wanted.

Today, TiVo and similar technologies, as well as “on demand” cable, are making the VCR obsolete, and the networks along with it. V-casts and mobisodes are debuting on cell phones. How much longer commercial television can endure with viewers effortlessly able to delete commercials, or watch programs by subscription on cable and cell phone with no commercials to begin with, is anyone's guess. But the successful assault on network hegemony began in 1970, on the date that Star Trek went into syndication.

The feature shared by all of these developments -- Star Trek in syndication, the rise of cable TV and VCRs, and now TiVo and its siblings -- is the assertive viewer, the basic human desire to see and hear our entertainment when we want it, rather than wait passively for a network to dole it out.

The Internet probably has been the least injurious of new media to the traditional television networks. We can look on the Web for additional information about our favorite network shows. We can discuss them in online communities and message boards. And we can "stream" or download a missed episode of a current network series -- or simply see one we want to view again. But these very benefits of the Web cater, again, to our hunger for entertainment on our schedule rather than someone else's, and in the long run only expose the rigidity and unresponsiveness of traditional network TV to our needs.

The Internet as a medium for first military and then scholarly work goes back to the 1960s. The personal computer as a device at hand for everyday people was introduced in the 1980s, and its connection to the Web took wings about a decade later. Once again, the transformation from corporate and administrative to personal satisfaction took place just a few years after Star Trek debuted in syndication on Channel 11 in New York City, Ted Turner’s WTBS in Atlanta, and local stations across America. Coincidence? Well, one could argue that the impulse to satisfy our entertainment needs on our own schedule was so strong, and the networks so inept in fulfilling it, that the revolution would have happened anyway, with or without Star Trek. Certainly the technology of cable and the Web, and the daring of innovators like Ted Turner, would have been there, anyway. But revolutions need a first shot, a Paul Revere, to signal their onset. And Star Trek in syndication provided that.

It is probably also worth noting that David Gerrold, author of the acclaimed "Tribble" episodes and one of the editors of this book, also contributed to the digital revolution with a column about personal computing in Profiles, a magazine devoted to the Kaypro "CP/M" computer in the 1980s. In fact, so did my friend Rob Sawyer, the other editor of this book. The roots of the revolution fomented by Star Trek run wide and deep.

Human-Fashioned Futures

The evolution of television towards greater satisfaction of viewer tastes and choices is no coincidence. Along with the diversification and specialization of mass media, the empowerment of the viewer points to a crucial truth about the human relationship to technology: in the long run and the last analysis, we control our technology and media, not vice versa.

You wouldn’t know this given what most critics of media say. Those who pass judgment on our popular culture often depict us as creatures of our media, which increasingly dictate our tastes, schedules, and lives. In fact, the liberation of television begun by Star Trek shows just the opposite.

It is entirely appropriate that science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular led this charge. At its best, science fiction shows human rationality struggling with and triumphing over a chaotic, hostile, dangerous universe. Until 2006, The New York Times confined most reviews of science fiction to columns on page 38 or the equivalent in which three or four novels are accorded a paragraph or two each of review -- almost literally on the margins. That may in fact have helped science fiction, by keeping it suppressed and edgy, but it missed how science fiction is the quintessential story-telling of our time, uniquely capturing the human connection to the cosmos: our capacity to first know it and then reshape it to our own specifications. (Not only science fiction got short shrift in The New York Times. Mystery and detective fiction still do. And romance novels are not reviewed there at all. The genres are apparently too popular to merit the Times' attention. If it's not about a dysfunctional Southern family, the "newspaper of record" has little interest in reviewing it. But that's a story for another essay.)

More than any program in the history of television, Star Trek exemplified these highest ideals of science fiction. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and the rest were standard-bearers for our human encounter with the cosmos, for the unique mixtures of passion and logic that we bring to our encounters with everything.

Back here on Earth, in the 1960s, the program failed. But its lessons and thrills were far more profound than could be contained in any decade or network. It was and is a story for the centuries and the millennia, and its appropriate medium could therefore never be just network television, or indeed any single means. Its proper vehicle is, instead, every possible kind of communication at hand, which today includes books, television, motion pictures, and the Web.

Who back in the 1960s could have predicted such pollination, which broke through network TV like an explosion of dandelion seeds, invigorating half a dozen media and transforming television in the process? Not even Harlan Ellison, author of "City on the Edge of Forever" (in my and many other people's estimation the best script and episode in the original Star Trek series), who told the Washington Post in 1972 that in his opinion Star Trek was "dead." (Thanks to David Alexander's 1994 biography of Gene Roddenberry -- Star Trek Creator --for salvaging Ellison's classic of poor prediction from the historical dustbin.)

In those days, after all, gone was pretty well gone on television. Like an enemy of the state who had been declared a non-person in Orwell's 1984, with all images expunged from the public record, a television show once cancelled was invisible, unattainable. It wasn't like an old book that stayed on the same shelf, in the same library, for years and years. Its exile was far worse than yesterday's newspaper, which you at least could keep to wrap fish in. For that matter, last year's and earlier newspapers were available on microfiche in the library, for anyone who wanted to peruse them.

It was into the pit of such programmed, televised amnesia that NBC and just about everyone assumed Star Trek was headed after its cancellation. Instead, when NBC cancelled the series, it actually was taking the first big step in canceling itself and the two other networks as the mighty triumvirate that once dictated everything new that we saw on television.

The twenty-first century revolution in media had begun.

See also: Star Trek: Reborn, Reset, Resplendent and Star Trek Into Darkness: Echoes, Resonances, Great


Monday, April 10, 2006

The Night That Alias Reinvented Itself

Note to readers of my blog: This essay was originally published 2005, in slightly different form, in Alias Assumed: Sex, Lies, and SD-6, edited by Kevin Weisman aka Marshall Flinkman, with Glenn Yeffeth (Plano, TX; BenBella Books, 2005). I added a few new paragraphs - at the end of the essay - just before the conclusion of the series in April-May 2006. The conclusion of the series was enjoyable - but it didn't change the conclusions of this essay.

The Night That Alias Reinvented Itself
by Paul Levinson

September 30, 2002 was not that night. But it was a nice Monday night in New York City. I was walking with several colleagues to McNally Auditorium at Fordham University's Lincoln Center Campus, where we were to appear on a panel about The Sopranos that I had organized. The fourth season of the HBO series had premiered two weeks earlier, and had attracted a record-breaking audience for television: for the first time in the history of the medium, a cable TV show had scored better in the Nielsen ratings than any of its competitors on free, network TV.

The only thing bad about The Sopranos, I said to one of my colleagues -- Lance Strate, who was to present a paper on The Sopranos and the state of New Jersey (cultural as well as physical) -- was what to watch on TV on Sunday evenings when The Sopranos was not on. Lance looked at me and nodded sagely. "Watch Alias," was all he said.

I had vaguely heard of Alias then, which had just started its second season the night before. As it turned out, I didn't get to watch any of Alias until well into its third season, when my daughter (then 17) talked me into getting DVDs of the first two seasons (I'm sometimes a little slow to take a hint). Once I did, I was soon believing not only what Lance and my daughter had told me, but was coming up with reasons that Alias was in one way even better than The Sopranos, which might have made it the best show in the history of television.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay....

The Common Denominator of Network TV

The prime commandment of network television has always been: Thou shalt not offend! The networks make their money from selling air time to advertisers, who are happy to hand over big amounts of money for big numbers of viewers. The advertisers don't much care if the viewers are thrilled with the programs they are watching or merely interested -- in fact, all the advertisers care about is whether the viewer is watching their commercials, preferably with at least one eye open.

The result is that television has long appealed to the lowest common denominator of public interest: show what keeps the largest number of people interested, without turning anyone off and away. If a program keeps viewers on the coasts riveted, but sends middle-Americans running from the screen, the inexorable arithmetic of advertising works against it. Better to have a show that is at least mildly interesting to the coasts, and retains the heartland. The furor over Janet Jackson's breast on CBS during the Superbowl half-time in 2004 shows just what can happen when this principle is violated even for a split-second.

Now, a powerful corollary of thou shalt not offend on television has always been thou shalt not confuse! After all, a confused viewer can easily become an irritated viewer, a short distance from being no viewer at all. This is why daytime soap operas move at a glacially slow pace: you can miss at least a few weeks of programming, and not lose much of the story. But all television drama steers clear of sudden, disrupting turns in events and characters. Miss Ellie was deemed so important to viewers of Dallas, for example, that Donna Reed was drafted to play her after Barbara Bel Geddes was sidelined with heart problems -- even though the two looked and sounded nothing alike.

Which makes the surprise reinvention of Alias right in the middle of its second season on ABC all the more remarkable and rewarding.

The Rug That was Pulled Out from Under

The original setup of Alias, which carried it from pilot through a season and a half, was an elegant box within boxes. First, Sydney Bristow, a grad student, is working for the CIA. On this level, we in effect had a slightly older Felicity as secret agent. (J. J. Abrams conceived both Felicity and Alias. Jennifer Garner also played a friend of Felicity.) But we soon learn that Sydney only thinks she is working for the CIA. In reality, her SD-6 unit is a rogue operation, which uses the CIA as a cover. Most of SD-6, including Sydney at this point, thinks it is an entirely legal if black-ops unit, working for the good guys -- which the CIA will deny all knowledge of, and which will kill anyone who reveals anything at all about its work. By the end of the pilot, Sydney's fiance is killed by SD-6 because she tells him that she works for them. This leads to her resigning, which puts her own life in danger. The crisis is resolved when Sydney decides to stay on at SD-6 as a double CIA/SD-6 agent (that is, a good guy who works for the true CIA under cover as a bad guy who works for SD-6); this gives her the best opportunity to avenge her fiance's killers. Meanwhile, her mysterious father Jack reveals himself as also a double CIA/SD-6 agent. Sydney is not happy about any of this, but working under cover at SD-6 nonetheless affords her the best chance of bringing down this cruel organization and its allies -- in contrast to her work at SD-6 up until this point, which she thought was for the good CIA but was really for evil SD-6.

That a plot of such complexity -- look how long it just took me to summarize -- was ever established on network TV indicates how far the medium had come since Dallas. The success of HBO on cable -- which, as a premium subscription service, was free of the numbing yoke of advertising -- was at least part of the reason that ABC-TV was willing to be so daring. Indeed, Alias and The Sopranos were often in face-to-face competition at nine oclock on Sunday nights.

The two shows have little else in common. The Sopranos, unlacerated by commercial interruption, tells its story in hour-long film-like episodes; Alias decorates its commercial breaks with roller-coaster cliff-hangers. Not burdened by the FCCs childish (and unconstitutional) provisions, The Sopranos gives us realistic nudity and language; the most we get from Alias in this regard are tight outfits and a few sons-of-bitches. Although characters die with regularity on The Sopranos, the plot remains unrelentingly constant, and the persistent, singular complexity we experience is how such violent people can command something akin to admiration and even affection from us.

Although Alias had its emotional moments, especially in Sydney's relationship to her father, its supreme complexity was intellectual, and was especially so in the first season and a half. How could Sydney Bristow function as a good guy in an environment of bad guys who almost all thought they were good guys, and not give herself away to the head of SD-6, who in fact was a bad guy? She often went on missions with her partner, Dixon, an earnest good guy who did not know he was working in the service of bad guys. Sydney's job was often to confound the mission, or give the fruits of the mission to the good guys (the real CIA) right under the nose of Dixon -- who, if he had any inkling of what Sydney was doing, would have assumed that Sydney was a traitor to her country. (In fact, he eventually began to get just such an inkling.)

In the first year and a half, Sydney and her colleagues on both sides of the divide were able to walk this tightrope, in the face of ever more desperately complex situations. And then J. J. Abrams did something even more radical. He cut the tightrope. Right in the middle of the season. Right after the Superbowl on ABC in January 2003, which meant right in front of a huge audience.

He didnt stop the series. He did something far more unprecedented: he changed its very premise.

The Night of Reinvention

The Superbowl on television has long been about the closest the world regularly comes to being a global village. It vies with the Academy Awards for drawing the largest number of simultaneous viewers worldwide, and here in America, it regularly doubles the number of Academy Award viewers (Superbowl audiences are over 100 million in the U.S.; Academy Award TV audiences have been as low as 50 million). Coverage of American Presidential election returns, to give another comparison, attract well under 100 million viewers on all stations combined, and of course far less on any single broadcast or cable network. When the Superbowl is on TV, we are all seated in the same stadium, multi-millions of us, watching the exact same action on the screen. Alias could not have found a better spot and time to reinvent itself.

January 26, 2003: That was the night. The broadcast of the Superbowl on ABC-TV had drawn a record-breaking audience of 138.9 million viewers in the United States, according to National Football League statistics. More conservative Nielsen ratings estimated the audience at 88.6 million -- still a record for a Nielsen-measured audience. Alias fans have been abuzz about the new episode that will air right after the game. Victor Garber, who masterfully portrays Jack Bristow on the show, has promised that this episode will change things, and help the ratings. (Viewers have averaged about 9.3 million per show for the second season of Alias, until this night.) ABC had decided to postpone an episode guest-starring Ethan Hawke until the February sweep month, in favor of this special Alias chapter. "It was a very conscious choice on the producers' part, and I think it will help," Garber is quoted as saying by Rick Porter (on tv.zap2it.com), eleven days before the broadcast.

There are certain unwritten rules on TV -- certain specific principles in support of "thou shalt not confuse". Lead characters can be brought to the point of death as often as needed, but rarely killed (this used to be never, unless the series was ending or the actor or actress decided to leave). Institutions were even more robust and resistant to change. Southfork (the Ewing ranch on Dallas) could be set on fire, but never burned to the ground or out of existence; Ewing Oil could be sold, but sooner or later it would wind up back in J. R.'s or at least Bobby's hands. Even The Sopranos could never survive Tony's truly leaving the mob. If he did, that would mean we would be watching the series finale.

According to the Nielsens, some 17.4 million Superbowl viewers stay tuned for Alias -- twice the usual number of Alias watchers. Phase One -- the aptly numbered Episode 13 of the Second Season -- starts out conventionally, if provocatively, enough. Sydney's alias is a scantily-clad call girl on a private jetliner, tempting an ugly, powerful man in possession of some crucial data onboard the plane. Sydney bests the bad-guy, gets the data -- but then apparently gets shot. A delightful opener. But none of this has much to do with the real plot and purpose of this episode.

That pivotal story begins with the revelation that Arvin Sloan, bad-guy head of SD-6 played by Ron Rifkin, has gone missing, and has been replaced by a new eloquent monster, one Anthony Geiger, portrayed by Rutger Hauer. (One of the great strengths of Alias had always been the high octane star power attracted to the series for guest appearances. These included not only Hauer but Quentin Tarantino, Amy Irving, Lena Olin, Angela Bassett, and the aforementioned Ethan Hawke. See my comments below for more about Lena Olin's impact on the show.) Jack and Sydney have had a complicated relationship with Sloan -- everything is complicated in Alias, one of its joys -- and there is even a possibility that Sloan may know that Jack and Sydney are double agents, but for his own reasons is allowing their deception to run its course and unfold. Sydney, Jack, and viewers who have followed the series know they cannot expect such forbearance from Geiger. He presents something of a life-threatening problem.

And, in fact, Jack is soon unmasked by Geiger, who commences to torture Jack for the truth. Sydney -- who we learn has actually made good her escape from the sky (no real surprise, even Alias cannot afford to kill off its lead character) -- focuses on rescuing her father. But only the real CIA can pry him loose from Geiger. Indeed, the CIA would need to field an all-out attack on SD-6 headquarters -- but this would forever blow the CIA's game (also Jack's and Sydney's) of letting SD-6 think it was putting one over on the CIA. In other words, such an attack would blow the very premise of the series.

Well ... television series have been no strangers to episodes and plots that put central characters in dire jeopardy, and threaten to undermine the fundamental logic and set-up of the series. But prior to this episode of Alias, the TV way of handling this would be to bring the disruption this close to completion, razor thin to inflicting mortal damage on the plot, and then at the last moment ingeniously veer back and resolve the disruption to maintain the status quo. (The very way that Alias has just resolved the opening tease with Sydney.) But the problem with this approach, of course, is that the ingenious twists were always predictable since viewers knew there would be some kind of unexpected saving grace -- and therefore the twist was not unexpected at all.

Alias tried a different tack this time. The real CIA indeed attacks SD-6. A fierce fight ensues. We expect SD-6 to somehow pull its survival, and the continuance of the complex terrain of the series, out of the fire. But the blaze is too strong. Geiger and SD-6 are destroyed. Sloan, the SD-6 mastermind, does survive. And in the last scene we learn that the destruction of SD-6 was exactly as he had planned. He -- and the series -- are moving on from Phase One.

The Dividends of Mutation?

Alias gained about a million viewers for the episodes that followed "Phase One". This was a limited improvement -- Alias had reached that number (10 million viewers) at times during its first season. And in the third season, viewers often dropped below 8 million per show. It never really recovered from this fall.

Alias's daring reinvention of itself was thus less than an unmitigated boon. What went wrong?

Part of the answer had to do with specific developments in the series, especially the availability of a particular actress, which had nothing to with the reinvention on the night of the Superbowl. But part of Alias's problem after the reinvention flowed from the direction of the reinvention, or where it pointed the series. Let's look at that part first.

Unfortunately for Alias, the very purpose of its reinvention was apparently to make itself less complex, simpler, presumably easier for the common denominator of television viewers to understand. In the interview with Rick Porter mentioned above, Victor Garber gives an indication of why the show reinvented itself: "I think it's a difficult show. It's not an easy show for people to follow." The difficulty he was talking about is SD-6 -- the complexity of two good double agents, Jack and Sydney, working undercover for a bad organization pretending to be good, and consisting mostly of agents who are good who do not know they are working for someone bad. In other words, the very heart and soul and deepest intellectual jolt of the first season and a half. And the very heart and soul that "Phase One" blasted out of existence. Garber continues in his interview, "the Superbowl episode is like starting over. Its almost like a pilot episode."

Unhappily, the pilot was for a series which was less challenging and riveting of the mind.

Interestingly, all of the continuing characters, and most of their delicious conflicts and ambiguity, survived the revolution of "Phase One". But this ambiguity was personal, not structural or organizational, and therefore it was more commonplace than what had been before. Sloan, for example, not only survived but was still calling the shots. Since we already suspected prior to "Phase One" that he knew something close to the truth about Jack and Sydney's loyalties, the tantalizing question kept arising: why, then, did he allow them to continue to work for SD-6? Was Sloan perhaps in some way not just a villain, but a hero too? This ambiguity continued and was further developed and exploited after the re-invention. But without the almost insanely complex infrastructure of SD-6 to support it, Sloan became just another inscrutable, enigmatic character -- almost a dime a dozen in spy stories.

Other characters were similarly deprived of their best conflicts. Dixon, Sydney's partner, was a good man who thought he was patriotically working for the CIA in his work for SD-6. He was in fact no conscious double-agent, but a decent person unwittingly doing bad work. Sydney knew this, and had to constantly struggle with it. Dixon, for his part, started to suspect Sydney was not loyal to SD-6 (which, in Dixon's mind, meant Sydney could be a traitor to the U.S.A.), and was beginning to agonize about whether to bring this to Sloan's attention.

Indeed, this counterpoint came to the boil and played a central role in "Phase One": "You had your suspicions about me!" Sydney says to Dixon, in one of the best moments of the episode and the entire series. "You were right! I know this is insane but you have to trust me now! ... You have been working for the enemy you thought you were fighting." Thus Sydney convinced Dixon -- just barely -- to help her bring in the real CIA to bring down SD-6. But once SD-6 was gone, what was left for Dixon? In place of a good man in an almost impossible situation, he became an embittered man, who rightly felt he had been made a fool of for years. He was given other reasons in the series to loathe Sloan. But the upshot was we had a Hamlet of a character replaced by a conventional, by-the-book hater.

Marshall McLuhan not only coined the term "global village" but noted that "the medium is the message". We might say that in fiction of this sort, the complex structure of the plot is the message. When that underlying structure was removed without warning from Alias, that was the most complex -- and brilliantly satisfying -- move of all. But without that undergirding, the characters of Alias struggled to maintain their balance and even their reasons for being. With that fundamental rule of television -- you can burn Southfork, but it has to be repaired or rebuilt -- so courageously busted, the complex heroes and villains of Alias were left without a logical home.

Other Plusses and Minuses in the Aftermath

Other factors helped and hurt Alias in the aftermath of its reinvention on Superbowl 2003 night. One factor in particular both dramatically helped and hurt Alias, and in the end shows the damage that another kind of transformation can wreak on a show -- the unintentional loss of a character because the actress who plays her is no longer available.

Laura Bristow/Irina Derevko -- Sydney's mother and Jacks wife -- first appeared, in shadowy profile, at the end of the final episode of Season One. Throughout most of the first season, everyone -- including Sydney and presumably Jack-- thinks Derevko is dead. But Sydney and Jack were beginning to suspect otherwise, and at the end of the last episode of that season we meet Derevko: her people have captured Sydney, and she has shot her daughter (not fatally) in an attempt to get her to talk.

In the first episode of the second season, Derevko turns herself in to the CIA -- to be close to their planning, to be close to her daughter, who knows? Lena Olin gave an incandescent, sterling performance as Derevko in that episode, and indeed in every episode in which she appeared that season.

She is beautiful, powerful, poised. Sparks fly every time she and Victor Garber are in the same room. Scenes between her and Jennifer Garner are superb. A two-part episode -- "The Passage" -- takes the happy family on a trip to India to prevent a war between that country and Pakistan over nuclear weapons. "The Passage" is generally regarded as one of the high points of the series, and I completely agree. The acting between Olin and Garber has seldom if ever been equalled on television.

Irina Derevko easily survived "Phase One" -- she was not in that episode at all. In the stories that followed that evening of transformation, Derevko's complex character and Olin's exquisite acting buoyed the show. Viewers had every reason to expect the same for the third season, whatever the twists and turns in the new, watered-down plot.

But this was not to be. For whatever reason, Lena Olin was not willing to play Irina Derevko in the third season of Alias. At first, Jack was obliged to resort to instant messaging to keep Irina in the story. This worked best, once. Alias had few options. The Dallas solution of getting another actress to play the part had not worked well even in Dallas back in the 1980s. It would have been flatly ludicrous for Alias. A contrivance such as plastic surgery to change Irina's face would not have done it -- a significant part of Lena Olin's power and presence is her voice. Alias eventually decided to bring Irina's sister Katya into the story, played by Isabella Rossellini. She is a fine actress, with more cinematic successes to her credit than Lena Olin. But she is not as scintillating at her present age as Olin is at hers. The volatile chemistry between Olin and Garber that literally lit up the second season was missing.

The moral of this part of the story of Alias is that not all transformations are equal. The loss of an electrifying character is very difficult to sustain. Perhaps if Alias had killed Lena off in a satisfying way her absence would have been easier to take in the third season. But, even so, the shift from Irina to Katya -- from Lena to Isabella -- was a jump cut that left the viewer unsettled and dissatisfied. Her return in later seasons was not enough to reverse this.

The Perils of Reinvention

Genius is hard to maintain. Plots that flourish by reinventing themselves may be even more difficult. Live by the sword, die by the sword: once the cat of reinvention is out of the bag, viewers can come to expect it, and it can thus become boring. The weekly television series V tried a radical approach in the 1980s, after two successful mini-series which introduced the show and its characters. How about killing off a central, seemingly crucial character every few weeks? It seemed like a good idea at first. But pretty soon the series killed off not only many of its original characters, but itself.

Alias, alas, did just that. The fatigue it exhibited in its third season was due not to too many unexpected plot changes, but probably too few. Rather than building on the golden opportunity of Sydney's two-year amnesia that set the third season in motion, Alias essentially went in circles. With the exception of Sydney's sister, the third season ended up pretty much on the same terrain, with the same set of characters and conflicts, that we saw at the end of the second season.

The fourth and so far the fifth season of Alias have been pretty much the same. And now, like everyone else, I'm waiting for the finale J. J. Abrams has promised, which will start with a 2-hour special April 19, and continue in weekly installments through May. I'm betting we'll be in for at least a couple of great surprises.

But whatever happens, nothing can ever erase the magic of those first 22 plus 12 episodes, and the brazen verve, nerve, of what happened in Episode 13 of Season Two. Win, lose, or draw in the finale, that Episode 13 and everything that led up to it will remain one of the highest points of serialized fiction. It made Alias the greatest show in the history of television at that moment. Perhaps its subsequent failure was the price the series had to pay for that accomplishment.

And what will we watch now that Alias will soon no longer be with us, for good? I'm sure Lance Strate would say Lost -- as well as 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire. And The Sopranos are back, too, at least for this year and next...

Helpful links:

Alias - The Complete First Season

Alias - The Complete Second Season

Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium - by Paul Levinson