I feel bad for the people on ‘Planet of the Apps’

Billy Disney has created a video review of Apple’s new show, “Planet of the Apps,” for The Outline. It’s a brutal, well-edited, well-reasoned takedown. And while I think Disney might’ve been a wee bit selective with how he negatively portrays the show’s judges, he’s clearly not too hard on the show itself, which appears to be a disaster (see also: Maureen Ryan’s review for Variety).

The biggest bummer of this whole thing is the fate that has befallen these app developers and entrepreneurs. My guess is many of them went into Planet of the Apps in good faith, and hoping that the exposure would help them gain some kind of differentiation in an extremely crowded market with well-funded incumbents. Instead, they’ve been given dubious advice by the show’s judges and become the subject of some tone deaf marketing to boot.

Like Disney, I hope the recent hiring of Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht from Sony foretells a bright future for Apple’s original programming. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it getting worse.

My three favorite episodes of ‘Master of None: Season 2’

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None: Season 2 is a revelation. It takes the themes from the show’s first season and deepens them, with a balance of irreverence and emotional maturity that is rare to see in pop culture these days.

All that said, I did find the second season to be a bit uneven. While season 1 is pretty much as close as you can get to a perfect debut season,  there were a few duds for me in this batch (e.g. “Door #3” was particularly rough). But when season 2 hits its mark, it is transcendent.

As a tribute to one of my favorite TV viewing experiences of the year, here are my three favorite episodes from the season. Spoilers ahead.

S2E04 – First Date: As someone who has been on dozens of first dates via online dating apps, this episode accurately captures the thrills and disappointments of meeting lots of women in rapid-fire succession. Online dating provides the opportunity to encounter all kinds of interesting people, some of whom might actually be good friends in another life. But when two good-natured people are placed in the confines of this artificial construct (i.e. the first date), it can be immensely challenging to have a good time.

One thing the episode does a great job of establishing is how there’s typically a ceiling on how well a first date can go. Even if the chemistry is great, the plan for the date is perfect, and everything is firing on all cylinders, at the end of the night there’s a big possibility you’re going to go home by yourself, bathe in the glow of that experience, and try to re-create it again later on in the week (possibly with the same person). It’s an intense and dehumanizing process that asks you to place a great deal of hope in the possibility of a meaningful connection (otherwise why go on the date in the first place?) but balance it with the possibility that it will go horrendously wrong. And even if things do great, there’s no guarantee that more will come of it.

Love in the age of the smartphone is difficult.

S2E08 – Thanksgiving: My parents brought my brother and me to America in search of a better life, but they had a lot of difficulty accepting the values that this better life would instill in us. Why didn’t we want to become doctors or lawyers? Why didn’t we go to a Chinese-speaking church? Why did we place so much emphasis on our own individuality and self-determination? Why did I spend so much time watching movies?

For every single one of these decisions (and dozens of others), a pattern would emerge: My mother would fight us tooth and nail on the issue at hand. Then, over time (sometimes years or decades), she would start to accept our choices. And then, without us even realizing it, she would start to have new, revised standards over how we should live our lives that would factor in the new state of play.

I don’t think I’ve seen a single piece of art better capture my own personal experience as an Asian immigrant growing up in a conservative household than Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” episode. I know that sounds odd to say, seeing as how this episode is really about the relationship between an African-American mother (played by Angela Bassett) and her lesbian daughter Denise (played by series regular Lena Waithe). But this dynamic is one I’ve seen play out in my life and many of my friends lives, all of whom also have tough, conservative parents. It’s fundamentally about a child deviating from the morals and expectations of their parents, and how this can be initially met with intense resistance to the point where the relationship, as a whole, is in danger of disintegrating.

In the end though, often, if you’re lucky, parents come around. They might not ever explicitly say they accept you or your lifestyle or your decisions. They might not wholeheartedly approve. But they still love you and accept you as a child. They still want you to live a happy, healthy life. And as this episode attests to, they will still welcome your friends and loved ones to the Thanksgiving dinner table. What a lovely, moving way to communicate the concept of parental love.

I watched this episode with my significant other and when it was over, we both turned to each other with tears in our eyes. We knew we’d seen something so beautiful and authentic together. It’s an episode I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.

S2E09-E10 – Amarsi Un Po and Buona Notte: Okay, it is kind of a cheat to list two episodes here, but since I consider this essentially a two-episode arc, I’m going to go with it. The final two episodes of the season are the culmination of a season-long storyline in which Dev, who has had a difficult time with love all season, falls in love with his engaged friend Francesca.

To desire someone who’s promised themselves to another is a special kind of hell. It’s the thrill of the forbidden, the excitement at the universe of possibilities open to you two, and the sadness of violating a third party’s trust, all mixed together in a messy cocktail. What’s special about these two episodes (beyond their gorgeous cinematography and references to Italian films such as L’Eclisse) is how well they capture this impossible situation. The chemistry that Dev has with Francesca plays out wonderfully, especially since we’ve seen how horrible some of his dates have been earlier on in the season. But I also enjoyed the slow revelation of what it is that Dev is asking for: is Francesca just supposed to leave everything she’s ever known and loved for what might just be a fling? Even if the connection is real? There are no easy answers.

Towards the end of the episode, Francesca is watching a smartphone video of one of the ridiculously cute “dates” the two of them have had. As Pino asks if she’s ready to leave, we cut to black.

At first I thought this episode was going to pull a Before Sunset and end right there, in stunning ambiguity. But we fade in to Dev’s apartment and see Francesca and Dev in bed together. Francesca’s engagement ring is gone.

I was pretty certain this was also meant to be ambiguous (perhaps it was a dream sequence, which is definitely something the show has pulled before). In an interview at Vulture, Aziz Ansari basically confirms this is what he was going for:

The ending, I’m going to be a little coy about sharing my own personal interpretation, but I will say I was curious what people would think of the ending. It’s been interesting to read people’s thoughts on it. I looked at a couple of things and talked to a few friends and stuff, and the sweetest thing I’ve found is that people are saying it reminds them of my favorite ending of anything, which is the end of Before Sunset, which I think is incredible. I read something where someone says there’s the Before Sunset test, which is “Okay, if you’re a romantic you think they’re in bed together and you think that things are going to be great.” If you’re another type of person, you think, “Oh, they’re together and it’s going to be horrible.” Another person could say, “Oh, I think it’s just a fantasy and she’s thinking about how terrible it would be if she actually went through with it.” Another person could say, “Oh, it’s Dev imagining it and how it would be actually not what he wants. It would be a shit show, like what Arnold was saying, that he’s just in love with the fantasy of her and not the real person.”

I think I would like to keep it that way, where it’s really dependent on who you are and where you are in your own head to decide what that thing means. I will say it’s not a flashback. It’s not a flashback to the blizzard scene because we’re wearing different clothes and she doesn’t have an engagement ring on.

So will we see what happens after this scene? Will Francesca and Dev live happily ever after? Will there even be a season 3 of Master of None? Time will tell. But if it happens, it’ll likely be just as messy and ambiguous and wonderful and hilarious as the rest of the show has been.

Art is now resistance

Corey Stoll has written a great essay about what it was like to play Brutus in the Trump-themed Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar:

In this new world where art is willfully misinterpreted to score points and to distract, simply doing the work of an artist has become a political act. I’m thankful for all the beautiful defenses of our production written in the last few weeks. But the cliché is true: In politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. So if you’re making art, by all means question yourself and allow yourself to be influenced by critics of good faith. But don’t allow yourself to be gaslighted or sucked into a bad-faith argument. A play is not a tweet. It can’t be compressed and embedded and it definitely can’t be delivered apologetically. The very act of saying anything more nuanced than “us good, them bad” is under attack, and I’m proud to stand with artists who do. May we continue to stand behind our work, and, when interrupted, pick it right back up from “liberty and freedom.”

I think the lack of proper education in our country is the root of many of our ills. In particular, education equips us with the ability to grasp and interpret complex works of art, and take away lessons from them that continue to be relevant.

The ferocity of the right wing response against this Caesar production, which doesn’t take into account any of its over-arching messages, is simply another saddening sign of the death of nuance in our discourse.

How the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ sequel fell apart

Anne Thompson at Indiewire has a fascinating piece on how Lucy Walker’s sequel to The Buena Vista Social Club was woefully mishandled behind the scenes, leading to creative control getting wrested away from Walker and a disastrous theatrical performance:

The lessons here are obvious: Documentary filmmakers, especially those with living subjects, need to understand all legal agreements before agreeing to make a film. Direct relationships with the subjects, and with the people who control the film, are essential.

But in the saga of “Buena Vista Social Club,” no one comes out ahead. The band didn’t get the extra loving tribute and publicity boost for the end of their careers. They didn’t get a chance to attend the premiere at Sundance or walk the red carpet at the Oscars. The filmmakers lost valuable years of their short lives. And Broad Green lost a lot of money.

Another lesson: a good producer who has your back is worth their weight in gold.

See also: Indiewire’s reporting on Broad Green’s rocky start.

Trevor Noah, on the shooting of Philando Castile

This week, the officer who shot Philando Castile was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Here are a few pieces of media that helped me understand and process this news.

Firstly, Radiolab has a two part podcast exploring why cops kill people in the line of duty and the aftermath of those officer-involved shootings. It’s a gut-wrenching listen, but worthwhile.

Shots Fired: Part 1

Shots Fired: Part 2

This podcast series was produced in partnership with the Tampa Bay Times, who’ve also produced a piece, “Why Cops Shoot,” that is a must-read.

In addition, I found Trevor Noah’s commentary to be meaningful and moving. He’s the only person of color (not to mention the only millennial) doing a late night show right now, and he’s using his unique position to speak from a perspective that is impossible for anyone else.

Giancarlo Esposito’s Fresh Air interview

I appreciated Giancarlo Esposito’s recent interview on Fresh Air, in which he opens about what it was like to make a career in Hollywood while being a mixed race actor:

I had to make a choice, and I made this choice over and over and over again in my life. I walk into an audition and I’m “Giancarlo Esposito” and they thought I was a white guy. … I walk into the audition and it’s all white guys sitting out in the waiting room and they come out and they’re like, “We’re sorry. We had no idea … you were black, so this is only for white guys.” …

We still check those boxes, right? And it says “African-American,” “Spanish,” you know, “Indian?” And I, all my life, have checked the box that that said “other.” Now, there’ s a connotation to that, too. I’m an “other”? How did I get to be an “other”? …

I’ve had to revisit this often, and I’m getting a little choked up now, because I believe that we hold ourselves in a way that also projects who we are. And if I project my humanity and I’m a human being, that goes beyond any color. It goes to the soul. … I want to be judged for who I am organically. I want to have real interactions not based on my color.

Walter Chaw’s review of ‘Rough Night’

I had a chance to see Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night last night and I had a great time at the theater. It’s a fun, inconsequential, bawdy movie in the vein of Broad City (which Aniello also has a big part of), where a group of female friends engage in crazy hijinks and maybe learn something about themselves and their relationships to each other.

I appreciated this profile of Aniello at The Ringer (who, btw, have been killing it with their director profiles recently):

“I don’t think that I’m making strictly political content — it’s comedy first,” she says. “Obviously I’m a feminist and I feel like my voice reflects that and I feel that the things I make reflect that. It’s funny because it’s probably too feminist for some people, and probably not feminist enough for other people, so I just have to be honest and be like, ‘This is what I truly find funny.’”

All that said, I was also stunned to read Walter Chaw’s (spoiler-filled) review of Rough Night, in which he gives the movie zero stars:

Very Bad Things ends with paralysis, death, and half-life; Rough Night ends by excusing everything, making sure everyone is friends and cool and shit, and explaining away why it is that the truly noxious character at the centre of it all is the way she is. Spoiler: it’s because her mother is dying of Alzheimer’s and she’s trying to give her a rosy picture of her…you know what, never mind. Above and beyond any ugliness embedded in the film’s premise and execution, the exploitation of this disease for some sort of moral reclamation is the ugliest. It’s completely unnecessary. It’s noxious.

It’s also what makes Rough Night genuinely terrible rather than just run-of-the-mill unwatchable. Imagine The Hangover if it’s revealed after everything that the Zach Galifianakis man-child miscreant was acting the way he did because he had sick relatives. It’s the kind of thing pictures without any courage do. Rough Night takes a shot at being a Weekend at Bernie’s, but garbage decisions like this align it more closely with Patch Adams.

I obviously don’t agree with Chaw that the film’s problems completely sink it (nor do I think the movie was unfunny; there were many laughs throughout the audience in my screening). But Chaw is right that there is a fundamental conservativism to these Apatow-esque comedies that inhibit them from hitting harder with their messages and becoming legitimate critiques of some of the awful human behavior they traffic in. This definitely describes Rough Night too. But not all movies have to be all things to all people.

Leave Tom Cruise alone

The other day, director Dan Trachtenberg wondered on Twitter why some movies that are only okay get completely destroyed while others are bafflingly elevated by the critical community:

I’m not sure if he’s referring to anything specifically here, but The Mummy certainly falls into the latter category for me, a movie that is inoffensive at best, and comes off as a craven cash-grab at worst. In our podcast review of The Mummy, we weren’t huge fans, but I was a bit confused at why critics decided to take a huge dump all over this one, when other equally terrible films this year have not endured such harsh treatment.

I can’t speculate too much on when/why critics sense blood in the water and try to bury a film. But what’s indisputable is that this one certainly has created a lot of anti-Cruise sentiment.

Many observers (including me) think Cruise needs to change career trajectory. Here’s Chris Eggersten writing for The Hollywood Reporter:

It’s hard not to be disappointed by all of this. Cruise is undoubtedly one of the greatest stars of the modern era, and over the course of his long career he’s consistently championed original projects over release-date slot-fillers. Like him or not, his reputation as a star who cares deeply about the quality of the films he puts out is beyond refute. While his current trajectory doesn’t necessarily suggest he’s getting lazy (I honestly don’t think he has it in him), it is an indication that he’s finally been forced to concede to the demands of an industry that has left old-guard action stars like him scrambling to find their place.

Then, this week, Variety published a harsh and somewhat confusing hit piece on Cruise, seemingly built from sources inside the studio, Universal:

As Hollywood is playing the blame game on what went wrong on “The Mummy,” which had a measly domestic opening of just $32 million, many fingers are pointing to Cruise. In the same way that he commanded the stage at the film’s premiere, leaving his cast standing awkwardly by his side, several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on “The Mummy,” essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set. On stage, Cruise admitted his own perfectionist tendencies. “I don’t just make a movie. I give it everything I have and I expect it from everyone also.”

Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions. He also had a great deal of input on the film’s marketing and release strategy, these sources said, advocating for a June debut in a prime summer period.

I found this piece to be odd because I’d always just assumed that Cruise exerted significant creative control over most of his films, whereas this piece presents it as a revelation. Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars in the world and, for most of his career, he has understood what makes a good action film (he’s a producer on all the Mission Impossible films, which have grossed over $2 billion worldwide). I would’ve found it strange if Cruise hadn’t had a huge amount of veto power on The Mummy, which is presumably the studio’s first entry into their Dark Universe of films.

In a recent issue of The Ankler, Richard Rushfield takes aim at the absurdity of the Variety piece:

Will you just look at that!  A star throwing his weight around on a set and taking over everything! And just because Universal had, “contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.”  It’s like he took that contractual guarantee literally!  When all Universal meant by it was as sort of a big cuddly bear hug.

But what’s a poor little studio to do when their star out of nowhere, with no warning at all that he can be a little controlling, suddenly wants to run the ship.

Anyway, good job, entertainment media. You actually made me feel bad for Tom Cruise and The Mummy this week. A high accomplishment.

[Note: The headline of this blog post is not meant to imply that Tom Cruise should be left alone for his complicity in Scientology’s abhorrent actions. Those he should still be held accountable for.]

Season finale

After a multi-year absence, Stephen Tobolowsky and I re-united to put out another 12-episode season of The Tobolowsky Files over the course of the past few months. While we will have more projects together, they will be somewhat infrequent until the next season of the show, likely not coming until 2018.

After publishing the last episode this year, Stephen emailed me and said, “We did it, David. Congrats. It was tough with the book tour and the travel and no internet and no time…but we did something good.”

As I’ve started refocusing on what is important in my life, I’ve realized that this has been my only goal with The Tobolowsky Files: to make something good. It is of paramount importance, beyond ad dollars or listenership numbers. It’s rare to be able to be involved with something whose quality you can believe in. This season of stories, which in my opinion represents some of Stephen’s best work, fits that bill for me.

Here’s a link to the season finale. If you like that episode, you can also subscribe to the show in Apple Podcasts or via RSS.

Analytics are coming to Apple Podcasts

iTunes Podcasts recently rebranded as Apple Podcasts, a small indication that Apple is starting to take the podcast game more seriously. Then this week, during a podcast session at WWDC, Apple announced they are going to be allowing access to information about listening behavior that occurs through the Podcasts app.

Peter Kafka, writing for recode:

A new version of Apple’s podcast app will provide basic analytics to podcast creators, giving them the ability to see when podcast listeners play individual episodes, and — crucially — what part of individual episodes they listen to, which parts they skip over, and when they bail out of an episode.

The reason all of that is important is that up until now, Apple has provided almost no data at all about podcast listening behavior — just the fact that someone has downloaded an individual episode.

And since Apple’s Podcast app accounts for the majority of podcast consumption, that means podcast creators — and podcast advertisers — have almost no idea how people are interacting with podcasts. They’ve been creating — and paying for — this stuff in the dark with almost no feedback.

Lots of people are saying this is going to be a huge deal. I agree that Apple offering basic analytics is give people a level of information and detail they’ve never had before.

I don’t quite believe it’s going to make an enormous difference for the vast majority of podcasts, such as those that I host. Here’s why:

Increasing fragmentation – With Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher now carrying podcasts (not to mention other iOS apps like Overcast and Downcast), the way people consume podcasts often doesn’t even involve Apple’s Podcasts app. While I’m sure the majority of listening still happens on the Podcasts app, anecdotally I feel like the listening on other platforms is also substantial, based on all the requests I get to add my shows to them.

We already kind of know how effective ads are  Advertisers have are using promo codes for quite some time, so they can track when you buy something using a specific show’s code. This isn’t the same as knowing whether users are skipping over their ads but in some ways it’s even better since this information, coupled with aggregate listening data, already allows companies to measure advertising effectiveness.

**

All that being said, I’m really interested to delve into the stats when they become available.

The best writing about ‘The Leftovers’

The Leftovers aired its series finale this past weekend and you can see my detailed thoughts on the final episode on Periscope.

Beyond being a really well-made, thought-provoking show, The Leftovers spawned what has become some of my favorite pop-culture writing ever. I wanted to take a moment to just link to a few of these pieces before everyone moves on.

Firstly, there’s Matt Zoller Seitz’s extraordinary interview with showrunner Damon Lindelof, in which Lindelof explains how an episode from this season was inspired by Matt’s writing. Here’s Lindelof:

I hear everything that you’re saying, and obviously it’s no secret that The Leftovers is not a meditation on grief. But it is a show about different coping mechanisms that people employ for inexplicable loss, and the closest analog that we have in the real world is death.

And I do think that, if I’m dedicating the show to you, or writing to someone who’s suffered that sort of loss, it is a very universal idea — it’s not like you have to have lost someone that you care deeply about in order to understand The Leftovers, but I feel like once you hit 40, odds are you’ve lost someone really close to you. That’s unfortunately the world we live in. It is more abnormal when you’ve lost someone close to you who is your age or your peer. That’s not supposed to happen. There’s an unnatural quality to that, and it’s shocking and it’s sudden, as it was in your case, versus a long protracted battle with illness.

At Variety, Maureen Ryan wrote movingly about how experiencing both the show and grief in her own life makes her think about time and quantum physics:

“The Leftovers” is the observer, viewing human particles who exist in many modes and places and times. They, like us, are here and there, with the living and the dead, hopeful and undone. Here and not here. Gone and left behind. (Echoes of a classic music video from A-Ha.)

The show has never delved too far into various scientific explanations behind the Sudden Departure, but on a bone-deep level, something about the event the show describes feels right — it feels true, like it could happen. Because there is no fixed point, the center cannot hold. Death is always coming, separation is always lurking, sudden tragedies happen every day, and, if we are entangled, we are undone.

We all know that’s part of the package deal of being human, and if we don’t know that, we’re taught that by time, the slowest and most exacting teacher. As I told a friend who also lost someone recently, grief is the boss level of love. (In some alternate universe, there is a version of me that has turned that observation into a smash-hit collaboration with Ghostface Killah.)

 At Uproxx, Alan Sepinwall has a typically excellent interview with Lindelof about the meaning of the finale. Here’s Lindelof explaining whether season 1 of the show is worth enduring to get to seasons 2-3:

I made a joke at TCA — or at least I thought it was a joke — that The Leftovers was a grower, not a shower, but I knew even then that it was going to take some figuring out and some experimentation. Not just because that’s the natural course of things in television, like doesn’t it make sense that the first season of a show should be its worst or its least evolved or its least confident? I have that conversation with people about The Americans —where season one isn’t even bad, it’s good; it’s just not the greatest show on television yet — then people like Aziz or Donald Glover or Jill Soloway come along and make perfect first seasons of television and then you go, “Oh, I didn’t even have to suffer through that.”

What I would say is, season one is not unwatchable, it’s ten hours of your life and of those ten hours, five of those episodes are categorically on the same level as episodes from seasons two and three, in my opinion. Half of them. I’m not going to tell you which ones they are, but you’ll know. “Lens” only works emotionally because you watched season one. You just gotta power through, man. That’s my advice.

Here are a few other links worth checking out as well:

While The Leftovers is a show I admire more than I love, I appreciated much of what it was trying to communicate. We live in a broken world that’s hungry for meaning, and one of the only ways we can find that meaning is through each other. But people are often terrible. For me, that’s the fundamental tension that the show brought to light, and that we need to deal with in our lives every day.

The 25 best films of the 21st century so far

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott have written up an interactive feature for The New York Times counting down the best 25 films of this century:

We are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start. As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.

The write-ups are obviously worth reading in their entirety, but here’s the list of just the films:

  1. There Will Be Blood
  2. Spirited Away
  3. Million Dollar Baby
  4. A Touch of Sin
  5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
  6. Yi Yi
  7. Inside Out
  8. Boyhood
  9. Summer Hours
  10. The Hurt Locker
  11. Inside Llewyn Davis
  12. Timbutku
  13. In Jackson Heights
  14. L’Enfant
  15. White Material
  16. Munich
  17. Three Times
  18. The Gleaners and I
  19. Mad Max: Fury Road
  20. Moonlight
  21. Wendy and Lucy
  22. I’m Not There
  23. Silent Light
  24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  25. The 40-Year Old Virgin

I personally find several of the choices puzzling (for instance, I wasn’t a massive fan of Inside Llewyn Davis like many of my colleagues — it’s probably my least favorite Coen Brothers film that they’ve made since 2000, which is no dig on the movie but more a testament to how damn good and consistent the Coen Bros are). But I’m impressed with the breadth and scope of the list.

Any list in which The 40-Year Old Virgin can co-exist with There Will Be Blood is good in my book.

Recode lists Decoding Westworld as one of the best podcasts of 2017

I am honored that Decoding Westworld, the recap podcast about Westworld that Joanna Robinson and I created, was recently listed as one of Recode’s best podcasts of 2017. According to reporter Liz Gannes, “I don’t think I would have wanted to watch it without having that discussion around it,” Gannes said.

Neither would I have, Liz. Neither would I have. You can subscribe to Decoding Westworld on Apple Podcasts here.

You can check out Recode’s full list of podcasts here. A lot of amazing company on here.

Homecoming: Season 1 review

I finally had a chance to listen to the Homecoming, Gimlet Media’s first narrative fiction podcast. Spanning six episodes, Homecoming is a psychological thriller that tells the story of a Heidi, a caseworker at a government facility that uses an experimental method to treat soldiers coming home from war. The show stars Catherine Keener as the protagonist, and a pretty amazing supporting cast that includes David Schwimmer, David Cross, Oscar Isaac, and Amy Sedaris.

I was impressed by Homecoming and would recommend anyone interested in podcasting as a storytelling medium. Here are a few specific thoughts:

  • The story is told using recordings of conversations between Heidi and other characters. While some of these recordings are diagetic, meaning there’s actually a reason for them to exist in the world of the story, some of the other recordings have no explanation. I would’ve been interested to hear a more “found footage” approach to this story, as I think it would’ve increased the immersion.
  • The performances were extremely strong all around. The highlight for me was David Schwimmer, who played Colin, Heidi’s boss. The interactions between Colin and Heidi illustrate a lot of the challenges common in the modern workplace — namely, how management separation from problems on the ground can lead to suboptimal decisions. Schwimmer plays Colin as both threatening, cunning, and oblivious in a performance that really surprised me with its subtlety.
  • The overarching story of this podcast could basically be a Black Mirror episode (In fact, there was an episode from the newest season that has a very similar story). This is meant as a compliment. Homecoming presents troubling truths and possibilities about the current state of our medicine and technology, and how we apply those things to our citizens in times of war.

You can listen to Homecoming here. The show is being developed as a TV series by the guy who created Mr. Robot.

How to be miserable

CGP Grey has an insightful new video essay on YouTube, listing 7 ways to maximize misery:

Beyond its dry wit, this video illustrates that it can often be useful to think of our unhealthy behaviors in terms of what outcome they are driving us towards versus away from.

The New York Times eliminates its public editor position

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, in a memo to the staff:

The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.

To that end, we have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts. We are grateful to Liz Spayd, who has served in the role since last summer, for her tough, passionate work and for raising issues of critical importance to our newsroom. Liz will leave The Times on Friday as our last public editor.

This is distressing news on a variety of fronts. The position of public editor, founded in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, theoretically helped keep Times’ folks honest. The idea that Times’ commenters and tweets/Facebook posts directed at the Times are a sufficient substitute for a respected person inside the organization seeking comment and effecting change is laughable. And those who think outlets like the Times don’t need to work on self-improvement need look no further than its coverage of the 2016 election.

That being said, the most recent public editor, Liz Spayd, was an unfortunate note to go out on. Spayd wrote many columns of dubious quality and essentially embodied the worst version of what this position could be.

Will Oremus wrote a takedown of Spayd on Slate not too long ago:

Most of [Spayd’s] column ideas appear to spring directly from the public editor’s email inbox, which she and her assistant monitor vigilantly. She quotes from readers’ missives prolifically, and she presents their sundry beefs and prescriptions with a level of respect that verges on reverence. But if we’ve learned one big lesson from Spayd’s work so far, it’s this: Readers are quite often wrong. Of course the public editor should listen to them and take them seriously. The real challenge, though, is to distinguish between their wishes and their true interests, to understand not only where those overlap but where they diverge, and to recognize which should influence the paper’s editorial decisions and which should not.

At that difficult task, Spayd has repeatedly failed.

Canon announces C200 cinema camera

Yesterday, the press embargo lifted on Canon’s newest addition to its cinema camera line, the C200. Here are the tech specs:

  • Internal 4K recording with Cinema RAW Light and MP4 format
  • Continuous 120fps (maximum) High Frame Rate with no cropping at Full HD
  • Up to 15-stops dynamic range (Cinema RAW Light)
  • Super 35mm CMOS Sensor
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF Technology
  • Dual DIGIC DV 6 Processors
  • 4K DCI and UHD, 1920 x 1080
  • 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 24p, 23.98p
  • Canon RAW Light, MP4, MP4 Proxy
  • Integrated EVF, 2 x XLR Audio Inputs
  • Rotating 4″ LCD Monitor, Camera Grip
  • 1 x CFast Card, 2 x SD Card Slots
  • 1 x SDI Output, 1 x Ethernet Connector

Here’s a pretty good summary by Pro AV of the key features:

My opinion: This is a weird set of features for a camera that cost $7500.

The default recording mode in HD provides only 35Mbps of quality, which is pretty much the same as the C100 Mark I (yes, Mark I) from five years ago. I’m sure the image will look great, but that data rate is painful in this day and age.

But the camera comes with RAW Light, which is great, and comes with dramatically higher data rates and file sizes (bafflingly, the much more expensive C300 Mark II does not currently support RAW Light). RAW Light records at 12bit 4K DCI at 30p and 10bit 4K DCI at 60p. There’s also talk of support for the XF-AVC codec in 2018, so that’s a huge positive.

That being said, I think it’s also Canon’s first camera for under $8000 that allows for high frame rate capture (up to 120p) in full HD, something that competitors such as Panasonic and Sony have already featured for years.

There are also a bunch of other cool things, like the fact that it supports 2 SD Cards AND a CFast card, as well as a better top-handle system than the C100 Mark II.

There’s a lot that’s appealing about the camera. There’s also a few head-scratching decisions. I wish it cost about $1000-2000 less than it does. In other words: It’s a Canon camera.

For more reading, I’d  recommend Erik Naso’s commentary on the C200.

Happy birthday, Stephen

A big happy birthday to Stephen Tobolowsky today.

At this point, I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life trying to bring Stephen’s stories into the wider world. The reason is obvious: When you see impact of Stephen’s stories in front of a live audience, you feel like you have to do everything you can to share what you just saw. Sometimes, we are called to just carry the fire, to just keep an idea alive, even if our resources aren’t that vast.

In return, Stephen has been game to work on most of my crazy ideas, like starting a podcast that would span 80+ episodes full of stories about his adventures, or making a movie based off the podcast. Or, more recently, doing a live show in Los Angeles this past weekend on three weeks notice, which we filmed and are planning to put out into the world.

I took this photo of him backstage at the Whitefire Theatre, preparing to go on. He killed it, btw.

Happy birthday, Stephen. Here’s to many more awesome years and stories.

The importance of being phished

One of my favorite podcasts is Reply All, a podcast about the internet. They recently produced an episode explaining how easy it is to get phished and how devious modern phishing techniques can be. It’s a fun episode, and teaches us the following things:

  • You don’t need to be stupid to be phished. In this episode, several extremely skeptical professionals are phished successfully. A successful phishing can sometimes be more of a testament to the skill of the phisher than the gullibility of the phishee.
  • If an email looks even slightly weird, triple check all aspects about it.
  • If you find that you need to re-enter your two-factor authentication more times than usual, make sure the URL in your browser is correct.
  • Don’t phish your coworkers, even as an educational experiment. It can only end in heartbreak and recriminations.