“This is a world in which nothing is ever solved.”
We’ll discover just how accurate Rust Cohle’s assertion may be when the season finale of True Detective airs this Sunday night. But until then, it’s boom times for amateur detective-ology. Who killed Dora Lange (and, presumably, a number of other women and children)? Who or what is the Yellow King? These and a variety of other interwoven mysteries are currently subject to rampant online speculation—sometimes precise, sometimes crazy, and not infrequently both—and far be it from me not to pile on. (I hope it goes without saying that if you haven’t watched the first seven episodes of True Detective and/or are allergic to spoiler-y speculation, you probably want to get out now.)
After an Olympics-related hiatus for much of February, most of TV’s biggest hits returned to the schedule with new episodes last week, accompanied by a tsunami of media hype. The Voice, Scandal, Modern Family and The Blacklist was among them, alongside major episodes of shows that had continued airing through the Olympics, including The Bachelor, The Walking Dead and American Idol. Yet as usual, one perpetually overlooked show topped them all last week, with an audience of more than 17 million: NCIS.
Now in its 11th season—its 250th episode airs Tuesday, Mar. 4—the CBS procedural, about a team of special agents (led by Mark Harmon) from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, quietly continues to be one of the biggest shows on TV (second only to The Big Bang Theory, which had 17.73 million viewers last week). Yet it receives only a fraction of the media attention (including magazine covers and talk show appearances) and respect paid to all of those other shows that it soundly trounces, week in and week out.
Read more. [Image: Phil McCarten/Reuters]
This is your monthly reminder that the TV industry is swimming in money.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the protagonists of FX’s The Americans, are very good spies. But they aren’t super spies. We’re reminded of this at the start of Wednesday’s Season Two premiere. Elizabeth leaves the cabin where she’s been convalescing for months after a botched intelligence operation. Philip’s attempt to send an intimidating message back to Afghani freedom fighters turns bad, and he’s forced to kill two more people than he’d wanted to—including an innocent teenager.
Spying, see, is hard. This is something that pop culture’s depictions of the trade often forget. Yes, James Bond faces tough challenges, but he wins out with the help of superhuman tech, suaveness, and athletic ability. His only real threats are guys with lasers and metal jaws and control of all the world’s computer systems. In other words, he and the threats he faces aren’t real.
Lately, TV has been making covert agents seem a smidge realer than Bond. But that still doesn’t mean they’re relatable. Huck on Scandal is a savant; he’s also a traumatized, unstable sadist. Carrie on Homeland is a savant; she’s also a bipolar, unstable crusader. This makes sense. Part of the appeal of spies is that they’re a different class of person—invisibly affecting the world, but fundamentally not of the world.
On The Americans, though, spies seem just like most people.
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If you live somewhere with easy access to Variety or an I-95 exit, it might be impossible to imagine finding somebody who hasn’t heard of (or hasn’t sat, bleary-eyed, ingesting the entirety of) House of Cards, the sleek and entertaining political drama on Netflix. According to YouGov’s Brand Index, a rough measurement of pop culture attention, the quantifiable buzz around Netflix reached an all-time high last weekend, when the second season premiered.
But how many people actually watched the show?
Netflix doesn’t share (and doesn’t care about) live audiences, and neither do its advertisers, because there aren’t any. So rather than rough Nielsen figures, we have to go by even rougher broadband analytics. But here’s our best guess: “Anywhere from 6-10% of subscribers watched at least one episode of House of Cards,” Procera Networks found, and in the U.S., ”the average number of episodes watched during the weekend was three.” Fascinatingly: There was no appreciable increase in Netflix’s overall traffic.
Given that Netflix has just under 30 million domestic subscribers, that means that two to three million people watched House of Cards in its opening weekend. (A previous Procera estimate went as high as 16 percent of Netflix subs, or nearly 5 million.)
Two million, three million, five million people. Whatever the real number is, that’s an impressive audience for a streaming network supposedly cultivating a long tail of entertainment. But is it an enormous audience for a supposed “hit” show?
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Our roundtable discusses “Incidentals,” the eighth episode of the HBO show’s third season.
Read more. [Image: HBO]
House of Cards, which recently released its second season on Netflix, is a series “intent on congratulating the viewer for being suspicious of politicians,” says TV critic Todd VanDerWerff, ”but it’s not particularly interested in examining root causes for political corruption.” Is that so? My reaction to the show is different. As Ian Crouch argued in The New Yorker, its dark vision of Washington “expresses an implicit contempt for the American public,” since we are the ones “who tolerate and thus perpetuate” its “real-life theatre of venality and aggression.” The polity’s attitudes toward power is one root cause of D.C. corruption.
How many House of Cards viewers root for Frank Underwood’s rise, or at least condone his moral code of “ruthless pragmatism”? The show is certainly tempting us to do so, just as Breaking Bad’s writers tempted us to root for Walter White. Pondering that show, Ross Douthat wrote that it challenges audiences to actually justify their moral norms: “Why is it so wrong to kill strangers — often dangerous strangers! — so that your own family can survive and prosper? Why is it wrong to exploit people you don’t see or care about for the sake of those inside your circle? Why is Walter White’s empire-building — carried out with boldness, brilliance and guile — not an achievement to be admired?”
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On Friday, Netflix unleashed the entire second season of its political thriller House of Cards, encouraging fans to abandon any real-world weekend plans for some quality time with the morally bankrupt Frank and Claire Underwood. But when does a cozy night in with Washington’s favorite fictional power couple become a full-on “binge-watching” session?
The name for mainlining episode after episode has its roots in the 1990s with DVD sets and TV marathons, but the practice reached a new level of recognition in 2013 as Netflix and other video services experimented with original content (like Orange Is the New Black) and offered numerous catch-up opportunities for critics’ favorites (like Breaking Bad). Despite its increased prominence, though, there’s never really been a good, single working definition of what binge-watching actually is.
Previous attempts differ from each other in interesting ways when you read them closely. For 2013’s Word of the Year award—which ultimately went to “selfie”—the Oxford Dictionaries defined binge-watching as “watch[ing] multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession, typically by means of DVDs or digital streaming.” Dictionary.com takes a much broader stance on what types of entertainment can be binge-watched, and it suggests that it happens without ever getting up: “To watch (multiple videos, episodes of a TV show, etc.) in one sitting or over a short period of time.” Trend stories about binge-watching rarely get into precise numbers, but their anecdotes offer some clues: In a 2011 Washington Post article about binge-watching on college campuses, one student reported watching 49 episodes of Lost in two weeks—3.4 episodes per day on average—while another student watched 120 episodes of How I Met Your Mother in four weeks: about 4.3 episodes each day.
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And: Is this show going to make evangelical Christians into villains? Our roundtable discusses “The Secret Fate of All Life,” the fifth episode in HBO’s series
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Our roundtable discusses “Beach House,” the seventh episode of the HBO show’s third season.
Read more. [Image: HBO]