TIME Media

The Post-Television TV Era Has Begun

Treehouse of Horror XXV
Fox

The concept of "TV" is being unbundled from the medium that delivers it and the machine you watch it on.

My column in this week’s print TIME (subscription required) is about a couple of big developments in TV this month that are both very different and closely related. The first is the unveiling of Simpsons World, the online gorge-a-thon of every episode of The Simpsons ever made. The second is the decision of HBO and CBS to offer their programming through streaming apps, by subscription, without paying for cable.

There’s a lot of talk in the TV business right now about “unbundling”–the idea of consumers buying more of the programming they now get in a giant, expensive cable package in a la carte pieces. The Simpsons move and the HBO/CBS news are not both “unbundling” in the same business sense. The networks apps are outside the cable bundle; you pay a fee for them (about $6 for CBS, yet-to-be-determined for HBO). Simpsons World, on the other hand, actually reinforces the bundle in a way, because in order to use it, you have to have a cable account.

But they’re each examples of how quickly now the business is unbundling the concept of TV from the medium and machine that deliver it. “TV”–actual, mainstream, desirable TV content–is now no longer something you necessarily watch on a television set or receive through a cable or satellite company’s pipes. It can be, as with Netflix and Amazon, a library of archival and original programming you get over the Internet. (It’s amazing, really, how quickly the two have become as prestigious as premium cable; in a couple short years they went to their Sopranos phase, skipping right over the Dream On phase.) It can be, as with HBO, a service you contract for separately. It can be, as with Simpsons World, an online entity in which a show becomes a “channel,” a destination, an experience that, as I say in the column, “is a better way to experience an expansively world-building show like The Simpsons than watching it on TV.”

It’s all exciting for TV makers and viewers–though, it can’t be overemphasized, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your future entertainment bill will be any cheaper. You could, in the near future, cobble together a decent cord-cut package with broadband service, an HD antenna, and some combination of HBO, Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime–but you’d need to be willing to give up things (like a lot of basic cable channels and much live sports). If more cable networks follow HBO’s lead, buying them a la carte will add up–and if a monster like ESPN unbundles itself, it won’t come cheap. And, of course, you’ll have to pay for the broadband–which may already come from your cable company–and that fee may just get bigger itself.

Still more ways of paying for and distributing TV means more possibilities for experimentation, and that’s a good thing. In November, we get more episodes of High Maintenance, the brilliant slice-of-life online series about a Manhattan pot dealer’s clients, distributed through Vimeo. (One of the appropriately dead-on details in the episodes already made: everyone watches TV on their laptops.)

And it’s also fitting that in the time of Simpsons World, we’ve also seen the debut of Nixon’s the One, a production from Simpsons voice actor Harry Shearer, who inhabits the role of the impeached President in vignettes with dialogue drawn verbatim from his secret White House recordings. Not only is the performance excellent–Shearer finds both menace and oddball humanity in the President–but the staging is genius, with the camera placed awkwardly in corners, as if the video itself were surreptitious, like the Mitt Romney 47% video.

Watching Nixon scheme and hold forth in the Oval Office, you can even catch a little glimpse of Shearer’s Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. You can see the pilot below, and it is (rubs hands together) excellent:

TIME Television

Jane the Virgin Is the Keeper of This Fall Season

Jaime Camil as Rogelio and Gina Rodriguez as Jane in Jane The Virgin.
Jaime Camil as Rogelio and Gina Rodriguez as Jane in Jane The Virgin. Patrick Wymore—The CW

The accidental-pregnancy premise sounds absurd--and it is--but Jane's playful, good-hearted humor makes the unbelievable believable.

The networks, with their vast new fall schedules, are like a species of sea turtle that lays dozens of eggs to perpetuate the species. Some of the eggs never hatch. Some hatchlings are eaten by sharks. Others scamper to shore and carried off by seagulls. Only a hardy few make it.

Just so, when I see the new network pilots, there are many I know I’m done with after one episode. Others go on a wait-and-see list, but as the weeks pass, I drop one and another off the list, from the truly bad to fine-but-the not-good-enough-to-make-time-for. I’m left with a few survivors on my season pass list: last season, e.g., Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn 9-9 and Trophy Wife (which, alas, was devoured by the orca of cancellation).

We’re a month into the 2014 season, and so far, Jane the Virgin is my turtle.

The CW series–a comic telenovela about a chaste woman who’s inseminated through a gynecologist’s mistake–had a strong, elegantly constructed pilot, and the luminous Gina Rodriguez was instantly winning as the title character. But a pilot is only a pilot: what’s won me over is that, having seen four episodes (next week’s included), each is as good as or better than the last. Here’s why:

This Show Is Having Fun. There’s a difference between a show being fun, or trying to be–which can sometimes be a forced exercise–and communicating a sense that its makers are having the time of their lives. Jane in its early days has something in common with other fresh, full-of-voice network hours like Scandal and The Good Wife: a sense of play. The rico-suave voiceover and cheeky screen captions bounce commentary off the storylines, and the show gets a particular kick out of visual and dialogue-based twists, as when Jane and her fiance have a conversation seemingly related to having sex for the first time, which takes a weird turn (“I promise it’ll be quick,” he says, “in and out”) until we see he’s accompanied her to an appointment. And the episode-three musical sequence where a guilt-wracked Jane imagines her entire church scolding her for considering losing her virginity–complete with a Clutch Cargo-style solo from a Virgin Mary statue–is one of the great TV moments of 2014.

Jane’s a Virgin, but Not a Saint. Jane has her reasons for waiting until marriage–guilt, family influence (pro and con), a certain personal cautiousness–but the show doesn’t make her a paragon; she’s just a sharp, complex young woman figuring out how she wants her life to go. She’s still a sexual being. She can be “judgey,” she admits, but she’s not a moralizer, and she’s self-aware of her judginess. The show foregrounds her virginity–it’s in the title, after all–but it doesn’t portray it as either a burden or a crusade.

It’s Culturally Specific. And by that, I don’t just mean, “It’s a show about Latino Americans.” It is, and the diversity’s welcome on TV; but it also has a very particular feel for things like Catholic culture in the 21st century, the generational differences in Jane’s family and her place in all of it. It’s the difference between a show that feels like it takes place in the world, and one that feels like it takes place on a TV set.

It’s a Soap Without Soap Opera Villains. Jane the Virgin is pretty plainly not going to skimp on the telenovela twists–beyond the title predicament, we’ve already seen a guy defenestrated and impaled on an ice sculpture–but it plays them out with characters who react genuinely. There isn’t, so far anyway, much mustache-twirling or vampy scheming, even among the antagonists and competing love interests; there’s a sense that on some level, everyone has good intentions, which makes for more interesting conflict. And the multigenerational dynamic among Jane, her mother and her abuelita is really something: Grandma is showing herself to be more than the pious scold you might have guessed from the opening “flower” scene, while Jane’s cautionary tale of a mom seem, at heart, to genuinely want to do right, even when she seems more like the child in the relationship. It all goes a long way toward making the unbelievable believable.

If you’ve been holding off because the show sounded ludicrously soapy, give Jane a shot. And if you didn’t want to commit for fear of getting your heart broken, good news: The CW has decided to carry the show to term, as it were, with a full season order. Whatever your position on virginity itself, Jane is worth keeping.

TIME

REVIEW: Boardwalk Empire Watch: Golden Boy

HBO

The gangster series come to an end by returning to its beginnings, and Nucky's.

Spoilers for the series finale of Boardwalk Empire below:

In the end, Boardwalk Empire went out exactly the way you would expect a gangster story to: with a Tommy gun.

Yes, it turned out that the young, ambitious drifter that Nucky met earlier this season was in fact Tommy Darmody, returned to Atlantic City to get revenge for lives ended and ruined, and in the process–we have to assume, seeing him dragged away in Nucky’s fading vision–throwing away his own.

The reveal may not have surprised detail-oriented fans, who been calling Tommy’s identity in Internet comments from his first appearance as “Joe Harper from Indiana” earlier this season. But it was a thematically dead-on ending for a series that has, beginning to end, told stories about the old preying on the young–Nucky killing Jimmy, the Commodore raping Gillian–abuse and sickness passing through the generations like a family heirloom. In the process, Tommy brought Boardwalk Empire‘s tragic circle to a close–its acts of violence, greed and abuse building on one another until they ended in a pile of corpses and torn-up dollar bills.

Tommy pulled the trigger. But there was another young man haunting this episode, haunting the entire series, shadowing Nucky’s present and his past, who may have done Nucky in as surely as Tommy did. His name: Ragged Dick.

We never saw him in Boardwalk Empire, of course, because he only existed in books. He was the hero of a series of didactic stories by Horatio Alger, about a shoeshine boy who goes from literal rags to riches through hard work and clean living. He wasn’t just a character but a symbol of the culture Nucky grew up in, a time of megafortunes and few safety nets, when poor children were smugly told they could bootstrap themselves into middle-class fortune.

Even at the time, Alger’s stories were controversial; they were mocked by social critics and parodied by satirists. But they were powerful, and they stuck, in ragged Nucky’s mind above all. In the first season, Nucky compares young, hungry Jimmy to Ragged Dick; in a flashback earlier this season, an older man does the same to young Nucky. In season three, Gyp Rosetti finds the book while poking around Nucky’s office; last season, Nucky gives a copy to nephew Will (another surrogate-son figure). And the spirit of Alger’s Ragged Dick runs through the series other references to the sanctimonious fables kids were raised on in Nucky’s day, like the children’s magazine, Golden Days for Boys and Girls, in the final season premiere:

Be honest and true, boys!
Whatever you do, boys,
Let this be your motto through life.
Both now and forever,
Be this your endeavor,
When wrong with the right is at strife.

If Boardwalk Empire has had a consistent theme, it’s been to systematically, repeatedly undermine this righteous, golden lie. In Nucky’s world, being honest and true may not always get you killed, but it doesn’t get you glory. The folks standing tallest at the end of the series–the real-life characters who would get written into history–are the violent, like Luciano and Lansky, or the conniving, like Joe Kennedy. From the beginning of this season’s flashbacks, the Commodore made clear that he thought Nucky’s Alger-driven morality was not just wrong, but despicable: “You think you deserve something for trying hard,” he tells him, contemptuously, like it’s the worst human insult imaginable.

As we have all season, we know where this flashback is going to lead: with Nucky procuring Gillian into “service” to his pederast mentor. His own dad a miserable drunk, Nucky has two fathers, Horatio Alger and the Commodore, and they don’t like each other. He wants to be the Honest and True Boy, but the only way not to disappear is to become the Commodore’s boy.

He makes his choice, and spends the rest of his life trying to reconcile the two. Which is where we met him at the beginning of the series–trying to be corrupt but not brutishly criminal, to be a bootlegger but work like a legitimate businessman. He would eventually kill and get bloodied, but his preferred weapon was his Magic Bankroll, which he would produce to peel off bills and make problems go away. In “Eldorado,” at last, the magic fails him; Tommy tears up Nucky’s second payoff in his face. “You showed me,” Nucky says.

Not yet. But he’s about to.

Boardwalk Empire‘s ending was all about finality. It spread its major deaths across the final three episodes, but with a few exceptions–Margaret, the institutionalized Gillian–if you had made your predictions on the principle that any non-historical figure would leave feet-first, you would not have done too badly. Like HBO’s Rome, this was a docufiction hybrid, with an emphasis on the little people and also-rans who would turn out to be history’s redshirts. Its greatest stories were at the margins–Richard Harrow’s, Chalky White’s–and whenever possible, it wrote out their epitaphs on the wall in bullet holes.

That was Boardwalk Empire‘s philosophy from the beginning. Producer Terence Winter was a writer for The Sopranos, but he notably did not agree with creator David Chase about closure and unanswered questions. It was Winter who lobbied Chase, unsuccessfully, to tell the audience what happened to the Russian from the “Pine Barrens” episode. And Winter had pointedly said that he was not going to end Boardwalk with a finale like The Sopranos‘ cut to black.

And boy, did he ever not give us a Sopranos ending here. Is Tony Soprano dead? You and I will be before anyone stops arguing that question. But is Nucky Thompson dead? Yes! BLAMMO! He is totally, 100%, no-ambiguity, direct-shot-to-the-head, glazed-over-eyes, fading-vision, last-fleeting-memory-of-childhood dead! He has shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible, he is an ex-Nucky! (He is also, by the way, less fortunate than his real-life inspiration, Nucky Johnson, who lived until 1968.)

But it was not only Nucky whom “Eldorado” gave closure; for most of the hour, the episode was a closure machine, a series of long goodbyes and exit scenes designed to give the audience the sense that each story was well and thoroughly finished. Narcisse, having put down Chalky White in the season’s most powerful episode, is gunned down (again, bullet to the head to silence doubters). Capone gets ready for jail, saying goodbye to his deaf son in a scene that recalled how affecting Stephen Graham could be when not he was not made to play Capone as a cackling maniac. Nucky has a last dance with Margaret. Luciano toasts his victory with the Five Families. You may have wanted a different ending, but you can’t say that you did not definitively get one.

I’m not saying that Boardwalk Empire was the anti-Sopranos, exactly, or that it was built for people who hated The Sopranos‘ ending. I’m sure there are people who loved both. But it was at least a kind of counterrevolution against The Sopranos‘ narrative style. David Chase’s story took expectations of the mob story and upended them, made them caustically ironic. Winter took a gangster story, largely from life, and had it do what you expect gangster stories to do, right down to ending with a whacking. It did it beautifully, with tremendous attention to detail, great performances and an acute sense of the history and ideas of the time. But on a channel that’s made an art of rethinking the mob story, the Western, the fantasy saga, Boardwalk Empire was, unapologetically, the thing that it was.

In the end, I prefer The Sopranos, up to and especially the ending. But that’s subjective, and it’s not really fair to hold that against Boardwalk Empire. It was itself to the end, and it ended pretty well by its own standards. The flashback structure of the season may have been, as Andy Greenwald wrote in Grantland, an attempt to retcon empathy into Nucky’s story–but it did show how he carried his downfall in him from the beginning.

A David Chase might have picked a different final moment, maybe that weird, magical scene on the boardwalk where a Buck Rogers showgirl guides Nucky behind a curtain to see the Metropolis-like image of an early television, and he’s struck dumb at the vision of a future he has no part in. I loved that image; it’s the one that will probably stick with me. But that wouldn’t be Boardwalk Empire. And the final image it did choose was gorgeous: Nucky as a boy, in his own golden days, reaching out for a coin that he thinks means hope but eventually will mean his doom.

Because “Eldorado” is not just the apartment building where Nucky dances with Margaret. It’s Nucky himself–the phrase literally means “the golden one.” Striving for a shiny nugget–a drive echoed in “The Spell of the Yukon,” the Robert Service poem Nucky hears the drunk Princeton boys reciting–is a fitting note to end this series on. Like young Nucky, flailing and grasping under the ocean waters, Boardwalk Empire went for the shiny gold. It didn’t know how to do otherwise.

Read next: Meet The Real Gangs of Boardwalk Empire

TIME Media

In Cable Ebola Coverage, It’s the Story vs. the Facts

Israeli-US actor and musician, member of the band Kiss, Gene Simmons poses during a photocall for the TV serie "Gene Simmons" as part of the MIPCOM, on Oct. 14, 2014 in Cannes, southeastern France.
Israeli-US actor and musician, member of the band Kiss, Gene Simmons poses during a photocall for the TV serie "Gene Simmons" as part of the MIPCOM, on Oct. 14, 2014 in Cannes, southeastern France. Valery Hache—AFP/Getty Images

As the disease comes to New York City, 24-hour news wavers between science and sensationalism. But what does Gene Simmons think?

The guest on Friday’s Fox News’s panel show Outnumbered gave a damning assessment of the government’s response to Ebola, after a Manhattan doctor who had recently returned from West Africa was diagnosed with Ebola Thursday night. “In point of fact, we are completely unprepared for things like this,” the guest said. “We can’t even take the simple precaution of not letting anybody from a certain part of Africa come into America before you pass a health test. The fact that this doctor and this nurse [in Dallas] were just allowed to run around… is lunacy.”

The guest was Gene Simmons. As in Gene Simmons from the face-painted ’70s rock band KISS.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that Simmons lacks the medical authority to talk about Ebola policy. He did, after all, write “Calling Dr. Love.” He’s practically a diagnostic professional! But that comment summed up where a story like Ebola is eventually bound to go once cable news has had enough time with it.

In any breaking news incident, you have the facts and then you have the story. The facts are what happened. The story is why you care–the details, quotes, opinions and fears that make the facts juicy. In cable news, the story generally wins.

So Thursday night, the facts were: Someone in New York City had Ebola. Dr. Craig Spencer, who had been volunteering with Doctors Without Borders treating patients in Guinea, had come back to Manhattan. He’d followed the accepted guidelines for self-monitoring, checking his temperature twice daily, and watching, per the medical organization’s guidelines, for “relevant symptoms including fever.” When he detected a fever that morning–before which, he would not have been infectious–he went to the hospital.

But then there’s the story! The story was that the day before Spencer went to the hospital, he went bowling! He rode in an Uber vehicle! He went jogging and ate at a restaurant and walked in a park. He rode the subway–the crowded subway! None of this, according to medical science on Ebola, presented a danger from a nonsymptomatic person. But it felt wrong in people’s guts. And that makes a better story.

Thursday and Friday’s cable coverage showed plainly this struggle between story and facts. At times, the dichotomy was present in the words and images of the same report. Friday morning on CNN, the top-of-the-hour news noted that Spencer was not contagious, according to authorities, when he went out Wednesday–but only after it ran down the subway-taxi-bowling story and said the city was “on edge.” Anchor John Berman interviewed experts including Daniel Bausch of the Department of US Medical Naval Research, who said “it looks like everything was done right” in the Spencer case. The on-screen graphic: “EBOLA IN NEW YORK: REASON TO WORRY?”

The coverage, like so many stories, has also become an extension of partisan politics. There are midterms coming up: Republicans are invested in a crisis-of-confidence narrative while the Democrats must convey an everything’s-under-control narrative. So on Fox, Sean Hannity was hammering the government for being unprepared, and seemingly every host was hitting the refrain that Spencer was “fatigued” when he went out Wednesday. MSNBC, on the other hand, emphasized the low risk this case posed to New Yorkers along with the generally positive response to New York’s public-health response to date.

As for CNN under Jeff Zucker, it is biased as always toward the juicier story. In a noontime report, correspondent Jean Casarez noted that an NYPD team had photographed some trash outside Spencer’s apartment, and then left. “So it’s still sitting out there right now?” Banfield asked, adding that she’d seen police throwing latex gloves into street trash. Had the gloves been anywhere near any dangerous fluids? Is any of that trash an actual risk? Who knows? There was no further information. But the detail sounded spooky, so the report just left it sitting there, like the recycling bags on the curb.

By midday Friday, the general tone of coverage shifted to one that was less anxious, partly because better news had broken: Dallas nurse Nina Pham was declared Ebola-free in her recovery, and Spencer, it turned out, had not had the 103 degree fever first reported Thursday night, but a much lower 100.3-degree fever–undercutting the insinuations that he might have been sicker on Wednesday. Then too, there seemed to be a growing awareness that Spencer had, after all, contracted the disease by risking his life to help others, and it was maybe unseemly to present him as some kind of arrogant bowling menace.

For now, the news fever seemed under control. But it was a reminder all the same. Ebola may only be spread through contact with infected bodily fluids. Fear and anxiety are much more easily transmitted, through the air.

TIME Television

black-ish Whips Up a Conversation About Spanking

MILES BROWN, ANTHONY ANDERSON
MILES BROWN, ANTHONY ANDERSON John Fleenor/ABC

A suddenly topical episode about corporal punishment is the new show's riskiest, and its best yet.

I liked the pilot of black-ish a lot. But–as often happens with sitcom pilots–I wondered how the show would sustain the premise over a series. Would it, on the one hand, be a string of variations on “Is our family black enough?” questions? Or, on the other hand, would it settle in and become another ABC family comedy, with hijinks and conflicts and special holiday episodes?

Over its first few episodes, though, black-ish has shown that at best, it can be something more nuanced and rewarding than either. “Crime and Punishment,” the show’s riskiest episode and its best yet, uses a universal parental question–how to discipline kids–to both bring out illuminate its characters’ group identity and treat them as specific individuals.

“Crime and Punishment” gets at the racial dynamics of spanking, which came up most recently in the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. The injuries that Peterson’s son received went well beyond “spanking,” of course, but the controversy also raised the charge that Peterson’s critics were imposing outside values on black parents who still favored corporal punishment.

[Note! I'm not trying to draw sweeping conclusions about how black or white parents discipline, but that's the argument people were making. And for disclosure's sake, I'm not a spanker nor was spanked--though I was told my parents spanked my older siblings, so maybe they were just worn out by the time I came around. In any case, I'm not trying to adjudicate the spanking issue here, but feel free to have at it in the comments.]

Unlike the pilot, which underlined its points about what is and isn’t “a black thing,” “Crime and Punishment” doesn’t directly identify spanking as a racial-cultural issue. It doesn’t have to–by bringing Pops into the conversation (“An ass is an ass is an ass is an ass“), it shows that André and Rainbow’s ambivalence has everything to do with the tension between how they were raised and where they are now.

But that tension isn’t simply about race–it’s about time passing and social mobility and the different boundaries of acceptable parenting in different social and economic classes. It’s not “White folks punish their kids like this, but black folks punish their kids like that!” here. With impressive concision, the episode makes the point that there isn’t one “white” or “black” position on discipline–when it comes to parenting, there are millions of opinions, each certain it’s right (and terrified it’s wrong).

When André polls his coworkers, their experiences bring in other cultures (South Asian, Korean-American), different generations (his older boss remembers spanking almost fondly), and general anxiety about the future and class security (“countries that beat their kids are beating our asses”). André and Rainbow’s own private discussions betray their own fears about Jack’s future, imagining what spanking and not spanking will do to him both ways he ends up homeless, though in one scenario he has a dog. (This too comically echoed some of the rhetoric around Peterson, who said that his own parents’ discipline kept him from being “lost on the streets.”)

What worked best about André and Rainbow’s dilemma is that “Crime and Punishment” presented it as a conversation they’d had before: André spanked Junior once, and they decided never again. (This again is an improvement on the pilot, in which the are-the-kids-black-enough questions, while funny, seemed to be suddenly hitting André for the first time, though at this point he’s the father of teenagers.)

The conversation was, for broadcast primetime, refreshingly direct: not just “spanking,” but “beating” and “whipping.” For all the parenting comedy on TV, corporal punishment rarely comes up as a question on sitcoms today–even though it certainly comes up in viewers’ homes. (The pilot of Modern Family, actually, included a subplot about Phil vowing to shoot Luke with a BB gun as punishment for shooting his sister, but it played mostly as slapstick.)

And it took its time coming up here too: according to an interview with Vulture, the episode was one of the first made, and producer Kenya Barris hoped it would air as the show’s second episode. After the Peterson scandal, ABC held off. But I hope the network gives black-ish the running room to be provocative like this in the future; there aren’t many sitcoms right now outside South Park that I could see doing a similarly funny-but-slightly-uncomfortable topical story.

And it gives me hope for black-ish as a series. “Crime and Punishment” was something different in a primetime network sitcom, in a way that wasn’t entirely about its characters race and wasn’t entirely not about race either. “Should we spank?,” it argued, is not simply a black parents’ question. But it’s also one to which these specific characters’ blackness is not irrelevant. It is–as they say–black… ish.

TIME Television

Time Is a Round Donut: The Graze-Watching Possibilities of Simpsons World

THE SIMPSONS: Join (L-R) Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer and Bart Simpson for the 21st season premiere episode "Homer The Whopper," of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Sept. 27 (8:00 - 8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2009 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
'The Simpsons' Fox

The addictive new Simpsons website proves that there's more than one way to binge on TV. Mmmm.... TV.

Make 550-some episodes of any TV show, and some unusual coincidences start to turn up. Tuesday, I was playing around with Simpsons World, the immersive website/app that allows cable subscribers access to every Simpsons episode ever made. The very first two episodes I watched–one randomly served for me by the site, the other chosen after I did a search on “Marvin Monroe”–both began with Homer wrecking his car after a toy got lodged under the brake pedal. As one does. (The episodes: season 21’s “Rednecks and Broomsticks” and season 15’s “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” You can check it for yourself.)

I mention this not to criticize The Simpsons as repetitive–again, 550-some episodes–but as an example of the different kind of experience that this new kind of TV streaming promises. Put hundreds of hours of TV programming online in a searchable, customizable form, with 25 years of TV equally accessible, and you’re going to find yourself discovering some strange connections.

One of the major influences on TV’s current cultural glory days is “binge-watching”–the marathon viewing of a show first enabled by VHS and DVD sets, which really took off after services like Netflix made it frictionless. Bingeing allowed new audiences to discover great serials like Friday Night Lights, while turning dramas like Breaking Bad from cult shows to blockbusters as they addicted viewers between seasons.

Besides bringing in viewers, bingeing helped elevate TV’s cultural status, by underscoring its similarity to the novel. If the original airing of The Wire, week by week, recalled Dickens’ publishing serial novels in English newspapers, bingeing it several episodes at a time allowed you to go through it the way we read Dickens now.

Bingeing, however, tends to confer that prestige on a particular kind of show: the ambitious serial drama, which compels you to begin the next episode after the last ends. This is one genre that has taken advantage of the TV medium’s strength for telling linear stories, which begin at a beginning and can take much more time than movies to drive forward toward an end.

But that’s not the only kind of expansive storytelling that TV’s open-endedness makes possible. Sitcoms, in particular, don’t generally drive in a straight line from a beginning to an end–not even, necessarily, more serial recent ones like The Office. Comedies, like The Simpsons, create immersive worlds rather than propulsive narratives. You can certainly binge a sitcom as much as you can a drama–Netflix, for instance, is counting on you to do that in the new year with Friends. But you don’t need, or necessarily even want, to do it in a particular order.

If a serial drama creates its effects by driving forward along a track, like a train, something like The Simpsons expands outward, like a cloud, or maybe a spiral galaxy extending from a center. You can live inside it, jumping from point to point, discovering new corners or echoing themes, skipping from season 2 to season 23 as if through a space-time wormhole.

The Simpsons World site is still incomplete; it went live Tuesday but has yet to add features like allowing people to find and share customized clips. (You’ll know when that feature is added, because they will be everywhere on the damn Internet.) Yet you can already see that this kind of format has the potential to do for this kind of TV show what binge-watching did for serials. You can search for terms, for instance–episodes involving the inanimate carbon rod, or Hans Moleman, or gambling. You can skip around and explore the series like a character inside a massively-layer online game universe.

It’s not binge-watching, exactly, though it could be just as time-suckingly immersive. Maybe we can call it graze-watching. (Or gorge-watching, for those with more Homer-like appetites).

And while it’s not every show that could take advantage of this kind of destination viewing, it could work for more than The Simpsons. If Friends hadn’t done a streaming deal with Netflix, for instance, I could easily imagine a Friends World, letting you customize clips, search for favorite quotes and skip around through every possible permutation of who’s dating whom. It doesn’t even need to be comedy-only: imagine creating a Law and Order World, with the rights to each season and spinoff of the franchise, searchable and drilled deeply for data and themes. (I’m envisioning a vast crime map of NYC with everyone murdered by L&O plotted on a block-by-block level.)

TV is still figuring out what it’s going to do with streaming and what streaming will do to it. But one thing that excites me about Simpsons World is that it suggests that different kinds of streaming can work better to show off TV’s different strengths–and thus to celebrate different kinds of TV greatness. Not all “Golden Age” TV–or whatever you want to call it–is about stories that drive in a straight line from this thing to the next thing. Some is about world-building that allows you to skip from this thing to that thing to that thing.

One of the new patron saints of serial drama, Rust Cohle, said that time was a flat circle. In Simpsons World time is, maybe, more like a round doughnut.

TIME Television

Why Nothing Is Getting Canceled (Yet)

It's not quite time for last rites for Mulaney just yet. FOX

It's not that every new show is a hit. It's just harder to figure out what a hit is nowadays.

We’re a month into the official fall TV season, and the big news so far is… nothing. As in: nothing has yet been canceled. (I realize, of course, that I may shake loose the season’s first cancellation simply by typing these words.)

What’s happened? Have the broadcast networks finally perfected their art, discovering the unerring secret of delicious, addictive entertainment? No. As usual, there have been some out-of-the-box hits (How to Get Away With Murder, in particular). And there have been a few thundering disappointments (at Fox, especially, where Mulaney just had its episode order trimmed back while vultures are circling above the Utopia compound).

Yet the Reaper has been pokier this season than last year, when, for instance, Lucky 7 had already come up snake eyes by now. Part of the reason may simply be that networks had been so quick to reach for the hook over the past several years–when cancellations after two or three episodes became common–that the slightest restraint looks like mercy. And at NPR, Eric Deggans offers a few explanations–for instance, that networks have done better at protecting new shows with better scheduling.

But a big part of the explanation goes back to something you should keep in mind when following any TV-biz news today: Nobody knows what is a hit anymore. At least not right away, and maybe not for a long time.

There are different kinds of hits: shows that a lot of people watch, and shows that make a lot of money (two factors that can be, but are not automatically, related). For the purposes of cancellation, a hit means the latter. If a show makes money, or is likely to, it stays on the air.

But how a show makes money, and how can you tell, are more complicated questions than they used to be. You need to know the ratings, of course–specifically, the ratings in the age demographics that advertisers will pay for.

That’s not so easy anymore–even if Nielsen doesn’t screw up the ratings for months as it did earlier this year. With DVRs, viewers may watch a show live, or later the same night, or later that week. So you may not know how popular a show is for weeks after it airs, once you get the DVR ratings such as “live plus seven”–the number of viewers who watched a show within a week of its airing. Now advertisers don’t pay for all those viewers; generally, they pay for what they call “C3″–not the measure of viewers within three days but the measure of commercials watched within three days. (If you have any sense, you skip the ads on DVR, and if advertisers have any sense, they know that.)

And all that assumes the relatively simple world of broadcast TV. It’s even more complicated on cable (where revenues like carriage fees from cable providers factor in), pay-cable (where HBO and Showtime make money from subscriptions, not ads) and streaming (where Netflix will never tell you how many people watch its “hits”).

So we wait longer for the ratings. In the meantime, networks–to counter the impression that a show’s a bomb from its live ratings–have begun issuing “projected” time-shifting ratings, which you should no more take seriously than you would fill out an insurance form giving your “projected” blood pressure six months from now after you finally give up French fries and start going to the gym.

But wait, there’s more! TV ads are still the main way broadcast shows make money, but they’re not the only way. There’s also the smaller but growing amount of online streaming, which shows up nowhere in those DVR numbers. And besides possible future syndication, there’s also the possibility of the sale of a show to Netflix down the road–a potentially lucrative deal that can make a relatively low-rated show like New Girl stick around. DVR ratings a week later may not be worth anything for ad sales, but maybe they indicate a fanbase that can be monetized later through streaming sales, or overseas sales, or… something else someone will invent soon.

For now, we wait, deciding whether to commit to new shows, while the networks wait and parse a growing mound of data, trying to decide whether to make the same commitment. For some shows, this more complex TV business could mean a longer life, as they get a second season to prove their worth. For others, it may just mean a slower death. Bottom line, the more ways TV has to turn viewership into money, the more complicated it becomes to turn new shows into old memories.

TIME Television

Manhattan, the TV Season’s Secret Weapon

MANHATTAN
Greg Peters

This drama about the race for the atomic bomb showed in its first season that, just like in nuclear science, powerful forces can come from small things.

I cannot always pretend to understand this new age of television, with its surfeit of TV series from websites and tiny channels and online bookstores. But I am enjoying it.

Take Manhattan, the richly textured period drama about scientists trying to create the atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II. It comes from WGN America, the cable-broadcast “superstation” that’s trying to rebrand itself with original scripted dramas. (The first, the loopy supernatural serial Salem, debuted earlier this year.) It’s created little pop-culture buzz. (It’s apparently being recapped only at a few sites, chief among them Scientific American and Popular Mechanics.) It’s drawing live ratings well under a million, with its 18-49 advertising-demo audience practically a rounding error.

Yet it was recently picked up for a second season. How does this work? Is it a loss leader? Has WGN figured out, like the architects of nuclear fission, how to extract tremendous power from a tiny mass of viewers? I have no idea. But its season finale, “Perestroika,” left me very happy that somehow it’s working.

Manhattan began as one of those shows that seemed just good enough–one of the growing mass of competent cable series that I might watch regularly if I had 72 hours in a day. I would fall behind and catch up, but as it went on, it grew into something special. Like Masters of Sex, it used a fictionalized version of history to tell human stories at the same time, while dramatizing the excitement of scientific discovery.

Through the families of the scientists brought to the middle of nowhere for who-knows-what, it asked, what are the unintended costs of a culture of secrecy? Through the internecine competition of the bomb-race, it asked, where’s the line between necessary ambition and self-aggrandizement? And through the politics and paranoia of the project, it asks, how much individual sacrifice is acceptable in the name of a greater good?

“Perestroika” brought those themes to crisis while setting up the series strongly for a second season–in particular, through Frank Winter’s decision about whether to let Charlie twist in the wind, accused of espionage, rather than spill about the breach of compartmentalization. With the Thin Man project now over–and Reed fatally out of the way–his implosion program is the only game in town. He’s won, and all he needs to do to keep winning is to cut Charlie loose, one more unfortunate case of collateral damage, like Sid Liao.

Why he doesn’t, but rather arranges to be “caught” telling Liza what they’re really doing out in the desert, is an intriguing question. It may simply be human guilt. But there may be a larger recognition that once you accept the win-at-all-costs mentality and let it go unchallenged, there’s no telling whom it will claim. It’s understandable that people like Frank would develop a Messiah complex; after all, they’re being treated like messiahs, with the individual power to stop the slaughter of millions and save the free world. As Babbit (an excellent Daniel Stern) tells Frank, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a good man. Maybe a good man couldn’t have made implosion work.”

But their power is also terrifying to those who rely on them. Having to place so much faith in these inscrutable eggheads creates suspicion and resentment in the powerful, from the menacing Occam to the Secretary of War (Gerald McRaney), who bellows at Oppenheimer for selling the President “a Buck Rogers fantasy.” (In real life, after all, Oppenheimer was dogged by red-baiting accusations.) The godlike power of these physicists makes them invaluable and suspect at the same time. It may be that the prospect of unleashing such a tremendous power had led Frank to realize that win-at-all-costs is not longer a sustainable doctrine. Maybe we do still need good men.

Manhattan‘s first season hasn’t been flawless; its themes and exposition can be clumsy, and the production seems a little threadbare. But it’s been a fascinating twist on the disparate-soldiers-thrown-together-in-a-foxhole war story, following people whose wisdom doesn’t always match their intelligence. Even Frank, in his revelation to Liza, suggests a kind of sad-in-retrospect naivete, predicts that thanks to their work, “There will never be another war.” If there’s one thing Manhattan‘s first season showed us, people will always find reason to fight–even when they’re on the same side.

TIME Media

Misogynist Online Abuse Is Everyone’s Problem — Men Included

The harassment against feminist #Gamergate critics is getting attention now. But the toxicity goes much farther in our culture.

I wasn’t going to write about #Gamergate. Most of the video gaming world is outside my experience. I used to play more, when I had more time and hair, but now I only play a few tablet or iPhone games, and badly. (I get a 384 on Threes, it’s basically a national holiday.) Not my issue, I figured.

Weeks went on, and I kept seeing references to a culture war between gamers and gaming journalists, especially feminist critics of the industry, that had devolved into vile sexist harassment and death and rape threats. So I started reading, and to an outsider anyway, Gamergate led to a vast tangle of ancient grievances and offenses that seemed about as easy to unravel as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (For those interested, Todd Van Der Werff’s explainer at Vox is one of the better I’ve read.) That sounds awful, I thought. But again, not my area. Not my problem.

And then I read this terrific column by the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan that made me realize that it is totally my problem, and everyone’s. The abuse that female game critics and journalists and developers have been receiving has been extreme–specific threats to friends and family online, bomb threats, people hoping to drive women to suicide, the threat of a mass shooting at a talk video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give. But it’s not unparalleled.

In TV criticism–in any cultural criticism now–the price of having a female byline and an opinion is getting subjected to torrents of gender-specific, grotesque, sometimes frightening and threatening abuse, which men like me, in general, do not deal with to nearly the same degree. I panned CBS’s Stalker. Mo Ryan panned CBS’s Stalker. But only she received the e-mail, quoted in her column, that told her to “shut the fuck up” because “MEN WE PREVAIL.” (Disclosure, I guess: I’m friendly with Ryan, as I am with a lot of TV critics, and I will confess to being biased against someone calling a friend a “fucking misandry freak.”)

And what’s the offense here, in each case? What were the fighting words? Somebody made some videos criticizing gaming tropes as sexist. Someone said that a TV crime show was exploitative and abhorrent. Someone said, maybe don’t harass women in the video game industry. This is the threat. This is the crisis.

It’s the “War on Christmas,” essentially. (There’s an excellent piece in Deadspin drawing out the parallels between the political and the entertainment-industry culture wars.) It’s the grievance of an identity group, already superserved by the larger culture, outraged that its service has become slightly less super. Their thing used to be the main thing, the default thing, the assumption. And now, if you point out that it is no longer the only thing–as is the case, both in American society and in entertainment–why, you’re persecuting them.

I have to assume that the people making death and bomb threats are, as the saying goes, a “small but vocal minority.” But this sense of disproportionate grievance is not so small. Put simply: someone saying mean things about a thing you like is not an assault on your liberties.

So someone made you feel bad for playing a video game that you like? I’m sorry. Maybe there are valid arguments against them. Maybe you could make those arguments! But nobody is about to haul you off to the Misandrist Re-Education Camps because they caught you playing Assassin’s Creed.

Someone got all righteous about the TV shows you like? Maybe they asked why there aren’t more well-rounded women in True Detective or why there are so many dramas about brooding male antiheroes and serial killers or they said something was a rape scene that you didn’t think was a rape scene? That’s unfortunate. But guess what? HBO’s still making the second season of True Detective! Networks are still going to make all those antihero and serial killer shows! You’re still going to be on the receiving end of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline full of product tailored to your specific tastes. I think you’ll be OK!

But as a larger group, we have a problem–all of us. It’s women, online and in real life, who have to deal with the fear and the abuse and the is-it-worth-it-to-say-this, in far greater numbers. People tweet horrible things at me sometimes, but I don’t pretend writing a post like this is any kind of brave act on my part. I’ll publish it and go on my merry way. I have the Guy Shield, or maybe the Dude Invisibility Cloak. (It’s +3 against trolls!)

It’s still my problem, though. There’s a whole genre of men saying that they’ve become feminist because they have daughters. I don’t; I have two sons. Which is exactly why this kind of toxic crap in the culture is my problem, because they play games and they live in the world, and I want them to grow up to be decent guys with healthy human relationships. I don’t want them immersed in a mindset that says that throwing anonymous abuse at women is somehow retaliation in kind.

It’s my problem because I may not be a big gamer, but no part of the culture is an island. The dudebro attitude is manifest in TV comments sections and movie discussions and literary arguments–the puffing out of chests, the casual gendered insults–and it’s stifling, and it’s depressing, and it makes too many people decide it’s not worth engaging anymore.

It’s my problem because I love ideas and innovative culture and smart conversation. And every time a woman decides she needs to cancel a speech, or decides it’s not worth the risk to keep working in the creative field she loves, or decides, you know what, not today, it’s just not worth it to publish this column on this subject–it costs me and everyone else (even if it costs the women affected much more). It’s my problem if anyone’s engaging in a concerted effort to shut someone up, because I’m a writer and I’m a person and I live in a society.

This toxicity that we’re stewing in may not be All Men or All Gamers or All Anyone. That’s obvious. And it’s besides the point. What matters is that it’s all our problem.

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