TIME Media

The Sarah Palin Channel: $99.95 a Year, Comes With Salad

In her latest media-politics endeavor, the former governor seeks to escape the "filters," this time between her and her fans' credit cards.


In the welcome video to the Sarah Palin Channel, the former governor of Alaska explains her motivation for starting a personal subscription network: “We’ll go beyond the soundbites and the media’s politically correct filter to get to the truth.”

Over her six years in the national spotlight, Sarah Palin has not exactly lacked for media platforms, filtered or unfiltered. She’s had a reality show on TLC and one currently on Sportsman Channel. She’s been a paid contributor to Fox News. And should even Fox prove too much filter for her truth, she’s had no problem taking her message direct, on Twitter, on Facebook and in videos. For Palin to have less-filtered access to the consciousness of her followers, she would have to possess their very souls.

But the most notable distinction about this brand-new platform, so far, is that it allows the former governor to get a message out to the public without the traditional, mainstream filter between her and your wallet. A subscription to SarahPalinChannel.com is $9.95 a month, or $99.95 a year (with a two-week free trial period). That’s 96 cents more a month than a Netflix streaming subscription. It’s 95 cents more a year than an annual subscription to Amazon Prime, which also offers music, streaming TV and movies, Kindle benefits, and free shipping. Not here; if you’ve been mail-ordering your smoked salmon from Alaska (there’s no online store at the SPC site), you will still have to pay full freight.

So politics aside, it’s fair to ask what the value proposition is for a subscription to Sarah Palin Channel. At this early point–the channel launched Sunday and began collecting paid subscriptions at startup–much of SPC’s front-page offerings are repurposed and available in some form free elsewhere.

There’s the seven-minute video calling for President Obama’s impeachment from earlier in the month; various speeches, like her July 19 talk to the Western Conservative Summit, that are on YouTube; reproductions of conservative meme images; a link to her daughter Bristol’s blog at the religious site Patheos.com. There’s a national debt counter and a countdown clock to the end of the Obama administration. Getting a place of prominence is “Sally’s Word of the Day,” a feature “brought to you by my Scrabble-obsessed Mom and her friends.” (The inaugural word: “Rectitude”–“the quality of being honest and morally correct”–which reproduces the Merriam-Webster definition verbatim.)

But wait! There’s more! The marquee original content thus far is a collection of short videos in which–as she’s been doing via Facebook–Palin weighs in on current events hitting longtime talking points. The trouble in Ukraine, for instance, is evidence that we need to “unlock” our natural energy resources, or Drill, Baby, Drill. Another publicizes her book from last year re-fighting the “war on Christmas.” In others, she answers questions from supporters, such as, “How many things can you name that Obama has failed at?”

Many of SPC’s short videos recall Palin’s hits for Fox News, placing her in a home-office setting backed symbolically by a carven eagle, a flag and a globe, speaking in a single take, YouTube-style; others have her speaking at an angle to the camera, as if addressing an unseen interviewer. The tone is on-brand: the folksy, familiar speech (after last year’s Phil Robertson controversy, she tells fans, “You guys rose up and said, ‘Oh my gosh, enough is enough!'”), her knack for digs that will rouse fans and aggravate detractors (Obama is “addicted to OPM”–say it out loud–“other people’s money”), the Alaskan-mountain imagery on the homepage.

Beyond that, what SPC is trying to sell is community and connection. The site’s videos are shareable on social media–so depending on your friends-and-family list, you’ll be seeing them free on Facebook soon enough–but you can only see or post comments if you subscribe. The idea, an FAQ says, is that “the community would feel more secure”–secure enough, for instance, for one commenter to post on the Putin video that “Like most people who have been paying attention, I would trade our little Kenyan collectivist for Vladimir Putin any day.”

For my money, though–or rather, what will be my money if I keep my subscription beyond the free trial–the channel is most effective, like many of Palin’s past media efforts, when it takes her out of the talking-head chair, especially in a series of odd, often fascinating “Behind the Scenes” videos. In one, Palin, wearing a vest and an Oscar the Grouch T-shirt, shows off a painting in her home office of a tableau of Republican presidents–Ike, Reagan, both Bushes, Lincoln, Nixon–laughing around a pool table. In a little inset photo, she’s holding her son Trig at a Tea Party rally, where she says her appearance was misinterpreted by the media. “At that time, I didn’t have so much of a platform or a microphone to counter some of the falsehoods and goofy, stupid things that some of the news channels say and do,” she says. “But now I do!”

Thanks to you, subscriber! Really, you could make a good case that the biggest feature SPC offers subscribers for $99.95 a year is the ability to give Sarah Palin $99.95 a year–that is, to feel empowered, to feel like part of a movement, to defy the politically correct media that don’t respect you, to stick it to “the powers that be” by standing up for liberty and Christmas.

Whether Palin has any future in politics or SPC is one of the last efforts to monetize the brand that John McCain launched by naming her his running mate in 2008, Palin demonstrably still has that ability to home in on exposed nerves, to appeal to a sense of cultural besiegement and grievance, to make the personal archly, needlingly political.

Just look, for instance, at her video, “An Alaskan Garden and the Lessons for D.C.,” which promises “a behind-the-scenes look at the Governor’s kitchen garden.” For over six minutes, Palin stands in her kitchen, tearing up lettuce for her salad–bought at the store, she says, not grown in her yard–and talks about the abundance of sunlight in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and the richness of Alaska’s resources in general, and what it all says about what this country would be if those liberal bureaucrats would just get out of our darn way: “The sun and our volcanic soil that makes this area so rich, so rich in resources, this soil, our oil and our gold and all that God’s created for man’s use, the minerals, the fisheries, the resources in the state can help secure the union. And once the Feds figure that out and allow us to unlock the lands in Alaska and responsibly develop them? Well, our country will be more secure.”

Just one thing, though: you never do get that look at Palin’s kitchen garden. You just see her step away from her salad for a second and look at some unseen spot beyond her kitchen window. But pony up just $9.95 a month, or $99.95 a year, and who knows? Maybe someday, all will be revealed.

TIME Television

Punch-Drunk Love: Masters of Sex Moves Up a Weight Class

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex (season 2, episode 3) - Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_SG_203_0003

In "Fight," the series' best episode yet, Bill and Virginia watch a boxing match and compare old battle scars.

“There’s really not an interesting story here, Virginia, I promise you!” –Bill Masters

Is there anything better for a TV fan than discovering a brand-new great show? Maybe: there’s seeing an existing series leap to another level, delivering on its early hints of promise. That was Parks and Recreation after its muddled first episodes; it was Breaking Bad after its strike-shortened first season; earlier this year, it was The Americans donning the mighty wig of a top-tier TV drama.

Now it’s the second season of Masters of Sex that’s hit the narrative G-spot. And “Fight,” the show’s finest episode yet and one of the year’s best, is a confident hour that announces this show fully knows what it’s doing and why.

I assume any critic–and anyone who’s watched Mad Men–will compare “Fight” to “The Suitcase,” possibly that series’ best episode, which also used a famous boxing match as the backdrop for a story about the relationship between two central characters. That episode took Don and Peggy over a long, drunken night on the town and in the office, underscoring the similarities between the boss and his protege; it found a kind of platonic connection within their professional relationship. “Fight,” on the other hand, took the already intimate physical relationship between Bill and Virginia, colleague-lovers very different in personality and outlook, and tried to find the frequencies on which they resonate.

Though the episode began before their hotel room assignation and ended after it, it felt in some ways like an idyll that existed outside normal reality. Time is distended in it, for instance: in the span of an an 11-round boxing match, there was time for Bill and Virginia to have sex, order and eat dinner, talk about their pasts, have a boxing lesson, get a haircut, have more sex, dress and check out. It’s just a dramatic liberty, but it also gives the episode a slightly magical feeling, as if the hotel room is the portal to another, purgatorial dimension.

And how mesmerizing Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are in purging their characters. The part of the reserved, suffering genius can be tedious, but it’s transfixing to see him peer out from behind the ice wall he’s built since childhood, and to see Virginia chip away at it. Any actor could play Bill as a man who doesn’t want to share his secrets; Sheen lets you see the hints that a part of him does want to. And as Virginia draws him out, pulling from him the story of being his father’s real-life punching bag, their conversation is as intimate, probing, sexual, as their sex. (Though the sex is nothing to sneeze at either. The scene in which the screen cuts to the boxing match to the sound of Virginia’s breath as she “makes herself feel good”? TKO.)

It’s fitting that the episode is structured around a fight, because it’s really Bill and Virginia comparing scars and bruises. And Caplan shows the subtlety with which she won a deserved Emmy nomination as she shows how she adapted in her own way to heartbreak. Where Bill became guarded and private, she became adventurous and outward-focused–but to a point: “Sex–fine, enjoy it if and when you can. It’s a biological function. But be safe, keep your heart out of it.” In the back-and-forth between them, you see how they make such effective lab partners: where he’s driven to look inward and analyze, she’s compelled to engage with the world, ask questions and explore. The difference comes down even to their hotel-register aliases: Bill wants to hide by making their story as bland and forgettable, Virginia by making it outlandishly fanciful.

The ambiguous-genitalia subplot, meanwhile, demonstrates how Masters of Sex has figured out how to use medicine and sex science to serve its themes: understanding sexuality, here as in last week’s “nymphomania” case, is important not just because it’s sexy or interesting, but because ignorance ruins people’s lives. And Bill’s ultimately unsuccessful showdown with the baby’s boorish father cuts directly to his childhood. For much of the first season, Bill’s abusive father seemed like backstory in search of a reason, but “Fight” links it directly to his work: one thing that drives his ambition is anger, the urge to fight bullies and the misinformation that empowers them. But knowledge can only take him so far: he’s more confident in cutting down the brutish dad with contempt–“You’re going to thank me for protecting you from your own poor judgment”–but in the end, he still ends up begging, fruitlessly, the self-satisfied jerk who says about his own baby, “A hole’s easier than a pole.”

What a set of performances; what an episode; what a show. And though Bill’s efforts to save a baby boy from gender confusion fail, “Fight” ends on an understatedly hopeful note. We don’t see, but hear over the final credits, the last seconds of the boxing match, in which Archie Moore–the aging underdog Bill identifies with–pulls out a historic 11th-round knockout. And Virginia has the last word, “I want to see how it ends,” as if to say that–for her and the other men and especially women who stand to gain from learning about sex–this fight is not nearly over.

TIME Television

Why the New Game of Thrones Cast Is Keeping the Faith in Westeros

The crowd at HBO's Comic-Con "Game of Thrones" panel. HBO

Analyzing the introduction of new characters suggests HBO series' growing focus on religion

Comic-Con was abuzz — because what is Comic-Con for if not to become abuzz? — with news that HBO had cast several new characters for season 5 of Game of Thrones. What does it mean for the coming season? In the most general sense, exactly what you’d expect: that the storyline is continuing, more or less following the settings and characters used in the source books by George R.R. Martin. But the news does give us some general hints as to what–besides winter–is coming:

Warning: some previous-season spoilers and very general references to upcoming storylines from the books follow:

MORE DORNE. The most glaring implications of the new characters are also the most obvious: much of the new season will involve the late Oberyn Martell’s homeland of Dorne, as we already essentially knew from news of HBO’s scouting locations in Spain. (Or from having read the books.) Among the characters is Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free), Cersei and Jaime’s daughter and the guest/hostage of the Martell family (who now look even less kindly on the Lannisters after Oberyn’s skull-flattening). And several of the “Sand Snakes” — Oberyn’s bastard daughters — have been cast, suggesting that vengeance may be afoot. (Many fans were upset that a significant book character, Arianne Martell, was not cast — but again, this was only a partial casting announcement.)

MORE DIVERSITY. One offshoot of the Dorne-heavy announcement is that Game of Thrones — which has leaned heavily on white actors, particularly for the citizens of Westeros — will be adding to the racial diversity of its cast (in keeping with Martin’s description of Dorne as a multiracial region). The new cast include the part-Maori Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Obara Sand and DeObia Oparei, a British actor of African descent, as palace guard captain Areo Hotah. (As more characters are cast for the Eastern continent storyline, where the characters have been more diverse, this trend may continue.)

MORE DEITY TROUBLE. Maybe the most interesting announcement to me in terms of season 5’s focus is one character: veteran actor Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as The High Sparrow — the leader of what is essentially a fundamentalist, populist sect within The Faith of the Seven that has grown in influence amid the troubles of war. One of the fascinating aspects of the source novels that is sometimes lost in the series is the role of religion in each of the various kingdoms — not just in the story’s mythology but culturally and politically. Casting Pryce suggests that season 5 might pay serious attention to the role of The Faith in Westeros’ politics, and to the battle for the people’s hearts and minds that goes beyond the battles on the field. Looks like the gods are going to be busy.

TIME Television

“This Show Is Insane!” And That Means It’s Working.

Sharknado 2: The Second One - 2014
Sharknado 2: Is TV jumping the shark, or are sharks jumping the TV? Syfy

Crazy with a chance of sharknadoes: changes in the TV business and social media mean that insanity is a good ratings strategy.

People are getting their heads smashed. A witch is nursing a newborn frog from a nipple on her thigh. And [sniffs the air] why, I do believe I smell a sharknado a-blowin’ in!

If you’ve been noticing more absolutely cuckoo plot devices, premises and twists on your TV, you’re not alone: it’s a deliberate programming and business strategy. In my print column for TIME this week (subscription required), I preview next week’s debut of Sharknado 2 on Syfy, looking at how it’s become increasingly important for TV networks to create viral “events” like this one that play well on social media. The reason? The more “HOLY CRAP!!!” a show creates on the second screen, the more urgent it becomes that you watch it live or as soon as possible–in other words, that you watch within the time frame that advertisers will still pay networks for:

Just as a tornado erupts from converging hot and cold air masses, the Sharknado is a perfect storm formed from two opposing media trends colliding. The first is that technology threatens TV ratings and revenue: when people record shows and watch them long after they air, networks don’t make money off the ads. (People now watch two hours more video a week than in 2011, Nielsen says–but about 10% less of it is live TV.) The second is that technology can help traditional TV, by driving viewers to watch certain buzzy shows live: if your friends are burning up Twitter about Scandal, you want to OMG along in real time.

This means that networks are increasingly interested in creating “events,” like Sharknado or NBC’s live Sound of Music, that people will want to watch as they air. When you tweet about Sharknado, you’re not just a viewer–you’re a marketer.

And in this week’s New York Times magazine, the always-sharp Tara Ariano detects the rise of what she calls “bonkers TV”–shows like WGN’s Salem (of the aforementioned frog scene), American Horror Story, Scandal and more, which are not just TV series but WTF-generation machines, constructed to deliver jaw-dropping moments that create online freakouts and and compel audiences to watch live, in the company of the social-media Greek chorus:

DVRs made recording shows easy for even technophobes; so easy that some of us might have forgotten where and when they were shown (making the concept of “airing” increasingly archaic). We also lost the discipline of paying attention to a show while it’s on, because we could now pop back eight seconds if we missed a piece of dialogue or pause it to go to the kitchen. You know how irritating it is to watch TV in a hotel room? We used to live like that all the time.

Our ability to focus on a TV broadcast has been further chipped away by the rise of Twitter, even as the industry has embraced it. Last year, Nielsen created a TV-ratings metric based on Twitter. Seemingly overnight, more and more networks urged us to tweet about their shows, suggesting hashtags in the lower corner of the screen. But there’s an obvious problem: If we’re all watching our shows not when they’re on but whenever we feel like it, we’re not really talking to one another about them. How can any TV show triumph over the convenience of the DVR and get the greatest possible number of us to tweet about it all at once?

Bonkers TV’s solution: Make every night like the Oscars.

It’s yet another example of the push-pull of change in the TV business. The same audience fragmentation that threatens the established business model of TV makes it possible for shows to survive with tinier audiences than ever. And the same diversity of outlets and mediums that allows TV to become more adventurous and intelligent also pushes it to get more outrageous, to attract scarce and fleeting attention.

In many ways TV is smarter than ever and in many ways it’s more ludicrous than ever–often at the same time. The near future of TV is full of promise. But it’s also one that encourages programmers to live every week like it’s Sharknado week.


TIME Television

Is TV Drama Finally Getting Out of Its Murder Rut?

Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan Greg Peters / WGN

Manhattan, Masters of Sex and several upcoming shows are finding drama in subjects other than scowling tough guys stabbing people.

Manhattan, premiering Sunday night on WGN America, is about a point in history when the balance of power in war tilted from brawn to brains. In 1943, millions of soldiers were fighting and dying around the world, fighting on ships and in the air and in close combat in a global war. Yet the outcome of WWII–and the global dynamic for decades to come–would be determined largely by scientists holed up in a secret government-run community in Los Alamos, N.M., racing to develop the atomic bomb.

WGN’s second new drama after the goofy spookshow Salem, Manhattan is a big improvement for the network–not an instant game-changer like Mad Men for AMC, but promising enough to make it worth finding out what channel WGN is on in your cable lineup. (Brooklyn Time Warner Cable customers, I just found it myself–it’s channel 126!)

Creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) have made a mature, thoughtful drama that explores how the pressure of the A-bomb race combines with military and professional politics to create workplace drama with stakes that are (literally) explosive. John Benjamin Hickey–whom you may know as The Good Wife‘s ChumHum chief–is especially striking as Frank Winter, a head researcher driven not just by patriotic urgency but fierce personal pride. (The Manhattan Project scientists were racing not just Hitler but other U.S. atomic scientists, competing with them for resources and glory.) The first two episodes build slowly, but there’s the stuff of a compelling drama about scientists and their families, exiled to what amounts to the nation’s most remote, highest-stress research campus. (“Harvard with sand,” one character jokes.)

But what’s most interesting about Manhattan at the get-go is how it’s another example of how, in TV as in WWII, brains may be starting to supersede brawn, at least a little. That is: several series this summer and fall are investing in the radical idea that there can be drama in things other than people getting horribly killed.

The last season of The Good Wife featured a running gag about a parodically grim cable drama that Alicia Florrick watched in which brooding cops did terrible things and gave even more terrible speeches about the nature of evil. (It was, basically, Low Winter Sun, veiled with Saran Wrap.) The joke was maybe a little self-serving–a (justified) complaint that lesser dramas got more credit and praise than the fantastic Good Wife because they were on cable and relentlessly bleak and violent. But it also pointed out the fact that in the Breaking Bad / Game of Thrones / Walking Dead era, it had become almost a requirement that serious new TV dramas had to be physically brutal, that their dramatic stakes had to be pointy.

The first half of 2014 brought more crime-and-violence-driven shows willing to take up Heisenberg’s black hat. And it was fine: True Detective gave us a murder case as Southern Gothic existentialism class, Fargo kept winter coming with its distinctive dark comedy. But it didn’t do much to change the impression that, these days, all TV drama flows out of the barrel of a gun.

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe in Halt and Catch Fire. / AMC

But this summer and fall, new (and relatively new) dramas are striving to give Alicia some alternative viewing choices. Besides Manhattan, Showtime’s Masters of Sex–currently better than ever in its second season–draws its dramatic thrust (ahem) not just from eroticism but from the emotional and intellectual charge of scientific discovery: it’s about how research gives its characters’ lives purpose, and how their findings about sexuality and its myths have the potential to change the way their patients live. HBO’s The Leftovers deals with a global cataclysm’s emotional toll, not its body count. Debuting in August, Cinemax’s The Knick (from director Steven Soderbergh) explores fledgling surgical science in the New York City of 1900; Showtime’s The Affair–the best drama pilot I’ve yet seen for fall–is about the aftermath of infidelity. (And that’s not even considering channels like ABC Family, which has a number of entries in the not-murdering-people genre.)

I’ve loved a lot of bloody, brutal shows, but you get tired of so much red meat. Which is one reason why I’ve stuck with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, about the computer business in the early 1980s, for all its imperfections. The show has been knocked as a kludgy Mad Men clone, and with some reason: Lee Pace’s angsty Don Draper-esque man of mystery, is maybe the show’s fifth most interesting character. But the ensemble surrounding him are people you don’t see every day: in particular, the complicated marriage between programmers Donna (the terrific Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is a nuanced exploration of entrepreneurial dreams smashing into reality. It’s become a good show–not nearly a great one, but one that’s refreshing for showing that the simple drive to create a thing of your own can power a story.

Episode 101
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in The Affair. Craig Blankenhorn / Showtime

It’s not as if these shows have taken a vow of pacifism. There’s a dramatic act of violence in the early episodes of Manhattan (and in a larger sense, of course, the show is about the eventual killing of far more people than Walter White ever took out). The Knick is extremely gory, but it’s medical gore, in a story about the bloody trial and error of an emerging science. The Leftovers incidents of violence are sparing, but they’re shocking. WeTV’s The Divide, a social-minded death-penalty drama, is rooted in a murder, albeit one dealt with as past history. Starz’s time-traveling Outlander, premiering in August, involves some hearty Scottish violence, but it’s secondary to the sci-fi-romance, culture-clash storyline.

It may be that TV audiences don’t want an alternative to violent franchises at all: see the healthy ratings for Fargo and The Strain. But if you’ve been hoping that TV drama’s subject matter could become as diverse as it’s become ambitious, the latter half of this year is looking promising. Big murder and mayhem premises will never stop being the stuff of many, many dramas. But as the Manhattan Project taught us, it’s also possible to harness incredible power from teensy, tiny things.

TIME Television

Hello, Simpsons World. Goodbye, the Rest of Your Life

A sample screenshot from Simpsons World FX Networks

The biggest TV premiere of the fall season could be the one involving a 25-year-old show

Years ago, when I named The Simpsons the best TV show of the 20th century for TIME magazine, one of the reasons that I gave was its depth; it had a vast canvas and dozens, nay hundreds, of characters well-drawn enough to potentially carry a story. It “created worlds within worlds,” I wrote — and this October, it’s going to become a world.

Simpsons World, to be exact: the digital platform, unveiled for TV reporters in Los Angeles yesterday, that FXX network will use to take maximum advantage of acquiring the entire 25-season run of The Simpsons. Accessible on the web and through apps (you also need service from a participating cable provider), it will allow you to watch any Simpsons episode you want, any time.

So there are several years of your life gone right there. But there’s more. You’ll be able to search for episodes by themes, quotes, and characters: if you want to watch nothing but Artie Ziff clips, your dream has come true. You can pull up an extensive episode guide and scripts. You can build playlists or have them suggested for you. And most important: you’ll be able to find, snip and share Simpsons clips–currently made scarce by the long arm of copyright law–in social media.

You may never do anything else again.

The ability to watch all 552 episodes is staggering in itself. (FXX will also marathon the whole shebang Aug. 21 to Sept. 1.) But it’s the search-and-share functions that threaten to transform communication as we know it. I’ve long said that there is a Simpsons quote applicable to nearly every situation in life; now we will be able to prove that. Online comments arguments will become an endless stream of “HA ha” and “Eat my shorts” clips. No one will be able to publish a beer review or write about a celebrity-drunkenness incident without a clip of Homer saying, “To alcohol! The cause of — and solution to— all of life’s problems!” We may be on the verge of a Simpsons Singularity, in which all digital dialogue, and eventually all of human thought, will be expressed in terms of easily accessible Simpsons quotes. (Here, for instance, is where I would insert a clip of Homer saying, “Television: Teacher — mother — secret lover!” if only I could.)

More seriously, the venture suggests a new kind of future for TV, or at least for certain kinds of entertainments and franchises: one in which truly immersive TV is not just a show but an app, a platform, a medium. TV shows used to be on channels; now something like The Simpsons can be a channel. Earlier this month, South Park — long maintained with as much independence as possible by Trey Parker and Matt Stone — signed a different but related deal with Hulu, which gets rights to its entire catalog of reruns for over $80 million.

It’s not Simpsons World exactly — though South Park has long had an online home at South Park Studios — but it underscores a similar creative and business fact: a creative franchise evolving into something independent from, and in some ways greater than, any particular channel that happens to host it at the time.

Probably certain kinds of shows are more suited to world-ificiation than others: animated comedies like The Simpsons and South Park have vast room for invention, and large-scale world-building is part of their mission. But someday the same kind of strategy might be used by, say, a sci-fi or fantasy franchise or an immersive soap opera.

It’s partly a business phenomenon, in which digital opportunities allow already big franchises to become even bigger. But hopefully, there are creative implications here. What makes a Simpsons or South Park — or a Game of Thrones — great is its ability to create a vast imagined reality. If there are more ways to encourage that and reward the artists who create it, so much the better. The Simpsons, as producer Al Jean pointed out at yesterday’s presentation, predates social media (and it debuted on Fox the same year Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web), but it was creating a virtual world even then. Now that world is inviting our world in.

I still say The Simpsons was the greatest TV show of the 20th century. It would be something if it helped redefine what TV shows are going to be in the 21st century.

TIME Television

James Garner, 1928–2014


There are actors who become stars because they strike awe — because they’re imposing, powerful, monumental. And then there was James Garner.

Garner, who died Saturday night of natural causes at age 86, was no toothpick of a man — he was a former high school football and basketball player who kept his rugged, weathered good looks long into life. But the characters he became famous for, especially TV’s Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, won you over with their minds. They got through trouble with cleverness, charm and subtle wit. Garner wasn’t the kind of star who won love because he seemed so elevated above you: he made you love him by showing you that he was on your level — had in fact spent some time down in the dirt, brushed off the dust, and moved on with a rascally smile.

Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., in 1928, Garner had experience rebounding from tough times early in life. His mother died when he was small, and his father remarried a woman who Garner would later recall was physically abusive. His family moved around the West, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where — after a stint in the Korean War — he was discovered for the movies.

The handsome Garner was a natural for westerns and war pictures and adventure movies. But the characters that proved the best fit for his natural, easygoing charm were anything but typical screen stars. He came of age as an actor in the heyday of the TV western, not by playing an upstanding lawman but as the wily, disarming card shark Bret Maverick in the action-comedy Maverick, a gambler and ladies’ man who had the fastest mind in the West.

Debuting in 1957, Maverick was a character ahead of his time in spirit, a forerunner of the little-guy heroes, the roguish, antiauthoritarians who would rule movies and TV in the 1970s. You can see a little bit of a proto–Bill Murray in the dry, sly Maverick, and if Star Wars had been made 20 years earlier, Garner would have been your Han Solo hands down. Garner stayed off TV for a decade after Maverick, but he had a great run in the movies in the 1960s, drama and comedy alike. (Support Your Local Sheriff! would be a great catch-up watch for anyone wanting to discover, or rediscover, his work.)

Garner’s most famous role, as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files in 1974, was the perfect meeting of Garner’s talents and the spirit of the age. Like Bret Maverick, Rockford was a screen-hero archetype who became all the bigger for being cut down to size: a private detective who’d spent time in jail on a bad rap, always one step ahead of the bill collectors and one good night’s sleep shy of his peak. He was not a pressed suit; he was a rumpled jacket that could use a dry cleaning. And that was what made him wear so comfortably.

The Rockford Files was a crime show where the characters were finally more important than the action: it had its share of brawls and car spinouts, but you really tuned in for the ping-pong dialogue between Rockford and con man Angel or his dad Rocky. (It was a precursor of the more character-based dramas of today’s cable-dominated TV era, and in fact the show was one of the first writing jobs for David Chase of The Sopranos.) Rockford might get his man in the end, but what made him loveable was less his triumphs than his ability to roll with defeat. He could throw a punch if he had to, but what made him a hero was his ability to take one.

I was too young for the run of the original Maverick, but I relished the brief-lived revival, Bret Maverick, in 1981, and I caught Rockford both in its original run and reruns. As a nerdy, not-too-athletic kid, I was especially drawn to pop-culture trickster figures — Bugs Bunny, Hawkeye Pierce, scoundrels who outwitted their rivals instead of outfighting them. Jim Rockford was the only TV crime fighter I really cared about, a charmer who could indeed win for losing.

I got older, and so did Garner, but he kept working late into life — collecting an Oscar nomination in 1985 for Murphy’s Romance, making a return to TV in 2004 on 8 Simple Rules after the sudden death of John Ritter. But Rockford lingered somewhere in my mind, and I suspect the minds of a lot of TV fans from that era. Garner created him as a sunny, fundamentally decent example of how to get through frustrations and disappointments not with rage, but a wry comeback.

In the end, charm and humor wear more comfortably than rage and drama. Audiences love that kind of character. Fate loves that kind of character. If you need a quick thumbnail philosophy for living, it would not be a terrible one to simply remember to ask yourself, whenever you face adversity, “What would Jim Rockford do?” For posing that question, and giving it such an entertaining answer, thank you James Garner, and RIP.

TIME Television

REVIEW: The Lottery

James Dittiger/Lifetime

Lifetime's venture into sci-fi is the latest TV drama centered on reproduction. But hoo baby, is it ridiculous.

Long before the Hobby Lobby decision, current TV has had reproduction on the brain–not just sex, but fertility, baby-making and their repercussions.

Orphan Black deals with the results of cloning gone awry; NBC remade O.B. horror story Rosemary’s Baby; CBS’s new sci-fi drama Extant is about both an astronaut’s mysterious conception of a baby in space and the android son she and her husband raise after having fertility issues. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex, just beginning a very strong second season, is not just about fireworks in bed but the medicine of fertility, obstetrics and contraception and how reproductive health–and who makes the decisions about it–affects every other part of women’s lives.

Now Lifetime’s The Lottery, premiering Sunday, makes baby-mania the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. Unfortunately, this baby was full of possibility in its conception, but it’s not hitting its developmental milestones.

It’s the mid-2020s, six years after the last human baby was born, amid a sudden, unexplained drop in fertility, and the world is learning What to Expect When No One Is Expecting. As the species faces extinction, women are subjected to mandatory fertility testing, a female “Uncle Sam” in a bikini implores men to donate sperm and a U.S. Department of Humanity prosecutes “fertility crimes,” including scams that promise babies to desperate would-be parents.

Amid the crisis, researcher Alison Lennon (Marley Shelton), has a breakthrough, successfully creating 100 embryos. The government thanks her, commandeers her lab, and announces that it will choose the hundred lucky new moms by, yes, lottery. But the administration appears to be up to something shady, as first evidenced by the fact that a top adviser is played by Martin Donovan. (No offense to the actor, but when’s the last time you’ve seen him in a role like this and thought, “Yep, I bet I can completely trust this character!”) In this newborn-starved world, the hand that controls the cradles rules the world, and Lennon makes it her quest to find out what ends her work is being put to.

Reproduction is, well, fertile ground for dystopian fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale imagined a totalitarian state that held women by the uterus. And Children of Men–whose Timothy J. Sexton writes and produces Lottery–took place in the hopeless aftermath of a similar baby drought.

But whatever potential The Lottery has to look at the connection between fertility and power, or the timely issues of women’s reproductive autonomy–or a simple dramatic fight over the future of the species–is wasted with flat characters and flimsy political intrigue that plays like a duller version of Scandal. (At one point, the President’s advisers discuss the danger of a “recall election,” with no mention of how we quickly managed to rewrite the Constitution to provide for one, or why a fertility crisis would cause it.) It doesn’t help that the show introduces Lennon as a woman on the prowl for a baby daddy, or that its scenes in the lab are written like Drunk Biology. “Behold, the first viable human embryo in six years,” someone actually says. Behold!

Meanwhile, the pilot devotes long, slow stretches to the single dad (Michael Graziadei) of one of that planet’s last remaining six-year-olds, trying to keep his son out of the clutches of a prying government and of his neighborhood’s circling, baby-mad would-be moms. Presumably this story and Lennon’s will eventually intersect. And eventually, maybe, the series will develop some ideas beyond, “People really want to have babies!” But I’m not sure I’ll stick around to see its story come to term.

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