Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food
Thursday, 26 November 2020 09:02

Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food

Dennis Broe continues his series, looking at how Cardinal inverts the usual cliched story of individual serial killers to suggest the shared gult of capitalists; how Tribal suggests bias against First Nations people in the justice system in Canada; and points to the links between the new Quibi Turnstyle format and surveillance capitalism. Image above from Tribal

In the spotlight this week is Canadian television, as two series with exceptionally interesting seasons have just concluded. Cardinal, on the private network CTV follows an Anglo male and a French/Quebecois/female detective team investigating serial killings in the frozen mythical hamlet of Algonquin Bay, in northern Ontario. The show has just wrapped after its fourth season, by far its most interesting, especially the stunning twist on the trite cliché of the individual serial killer.

The second series is Tribal, a pairing of a female Native Canadian chief, also a detective, with a seasoned and at first cynical and racist male colleague, who slowly reacts against the predominant mood on the local Alberta police force and respect his partner’s culture. Tribal, which boasts actors known to U.S. and global TV audiences – Jessica Matten from the CBC and U.S. CW series Burden of Truth and Brian Markenson a veteran of Mad Men and many Canadian series including the too-quickly cancelled The Romeo Section – is the second major series from APTN, the Aboriginal People’s TV Network. APTN programing consists of North American indigenous news and series, spotlighting Northern Canadian regions, while also linking to other indigenous peoples around the world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

Cardinal

The detective pairing in Cardinal, the lead detective John Cardinal played by Billy Campbell from The Killing and his partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse from the ABC series Revenge), is a cagey way of producing a show that plays to both Anglo Canada on CTV and French Canada on the channel Super Ecran, both owned by the same company. Lise’s Frenchness is not much remarked upon on the series and the final season, which concentrated on her reactions to the case, is the exception as her tenaciousness and compassion is usually outshined by Cardinal’s obsession, just as French Quebec is subordinated to the Anglo majority in Canada.

The series, available on BBC4 and Hulu, is based on the award-winning novels of Giles Blunt, with each season featuring a serial killer who Cardinal is obsessed with tracking. The small town of Algonquin Bay has more murders per capita than possibly any town in the world, except those in Iceland where its mystery writers have collectively killed off a high percentage of the population in a country where in reality there are hardly any murders.

The first three seasons are mainly interesting for the relations between the two leads, with Cardinal moving in the course of the show from darkly obsessed to willing to acknowledge in the fourth season, at the urging of his daughter, that he has feelings for his intrepid partner Lise. The murder element in the first three seasons is a sort of highly sadistic torturing of both the Algonquin Bay residents and the audience, as the detectives pursue ever more perverse, and ever less socially connected and defined, killers.       

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But something different happens in season four and, as in the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, the narrow serial killer motif begins to widen. The inciting incident in the killer’s revenge trajectory involves the greed of the supposedly morally upright victims, who participate in a scheme to rid the forests of its birds and make it available for logging. The killer’s calling card is a feather, to remind his victims of their part in this tragedy. So the guilt in this last season rests not with a socially isolated loner but with the greed that is constantly engulfing Canada’s frozen north, where the rush to strip the land of its minerals and its forests gained such momentum under the reign of the conservative Stephen Harper. The background of the serial killer is linked to the larger issues of environmental exploitation for profit, and the perpetrators are not only the isolated individual but a group of capitalists and their henchmen. It’s a vast improvement on the possibilities of a tired narrative tradition in the crime field.

Tribal, available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix and Amazon, tracks the efforts of the local Calgary police to integrate the tribal police force into their ranks. The experiment is merely a public relations gambit to make it seem that the era of colonization is over but it gathers steam as the local chief, Samantha Woodburn, slowly convinces her ageing, world weary and broken partner, “Buke” Bukosky, that her First Nation’s ways have meaning and value.

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Near the end of the first season’s eight episodes, the series hits its stride. Buke rises to the defence of his colleague as the Calgary police commissioner wants to cancel the project. In the highlight of season one, a now-corrupt Native former lead officer delivers a monologue about the unequal and unfair nature of justice as it is meted out to First Nations people by the state through the local police force. Samantha attempts to prove him innocent of a police frame-up, and the guilty finger slowly starts to point toward the racist Anglo police force itself.

This is the second series by showrunner Ron E. Scott, who also created Blackstone about reservation lives and struggles and which ran for five seasons on APTN. Tribal is a flagship show designed, with its crossover pairing of an Anglo and Native cop, to promote the network, partially funded by the Canadian government, and allow it to expand its work of countering the neglect and devaluing of the Northern indigenous peoples as an excuse and rationale to pilfer their resources.

Quibbling With Quibi (Part II)

This week we will look at Quibi form and content. The service is exclusively available and designed for mobile phones. It uses what it calls Turnstyle video technology, allowing the shows to be viewed in either horizontal (landscape) form which makes it more like a traditional though tiny screen, or vertical form where presumably one could also run other applications underneath while watching the series. The service attempts to turn the limitations of mobile phone viewing into gimmicky bonuses so that, for example, the upcoming Steven Spielberg Horror series After Dark can only be viewed at night. Of course this also makes apparent the way that viewers are being monitored since their phones can only activate the show in the evening.

Martin Scorsese’s comments on the era of the superhero film in the age of streaming apply here. He called these films, produced by Katzenberg’s former studio Disney, “theme parks” rather than “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experience.” Quibi “series” on the other hand are just single rides, reduced, in their 7 to max 10-minute form, to the ride alone. No buying tickets, no getting in line, no anticipation, just the ride, with almost nothing to show for it when the ride is over.

The other “innovation” in the short form consists in possibly undercutting industry labour contracts which have not caught up with this new technology, and paying reduced rates for workers employed on Quibi’s “entertainment bites” as opposed to longer-form series. There is a possibility that this loophole is what allowed the service to launch and produce so many series so rapidly. As Shoshana Zuboff says, these new forms of surveillance capitalism partly rely on outwitting regulation by moving so rapidly they cannot be evaluated and countered. She adds that…“In the absence of a clear-minded appreciation of this new logic of accumulation, every attempt at understanding, predicting, regulating, or prohibiting the activities of surveillance capitalists will fall short.”

quibi losses

As for the series themselves it is important to emphasize that the high-end flagship dramatic series constitute very little of the total Quibi content which is primarily what it calls “news” and features as well as short form documentaries. One of Quibi’s “innovations” is raising the status of social media “influencers” so that their shows appear alongside recognized industry names. Prominent among these is The Rachel Hollis Show where the host dispenses pithy advice to young mothers in the nature of “it’s not the quantity of the time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality.” Says Hollis, “As an influencer, what everyone dreams about, literally, is being an early adopter…the first person to step into the space.”

Hollis is the perfect Quibi representative, someone who values getting there first over making any positive social contribution and whose dream life, her interior psyche, is given over to nothing but visions of her own empty success. She is to the post-natal field what Trump is to politics.

As for the dramatic series, there is a possibility that the form could be valuable. The 20-minute podcast from which the Amazon series Homecoming was adapted made for very tightly constructed half-hour episodes of that series, enhancing its critique of the corporate over human values of the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part that does not happen with the purely “entertainment” preoccupation of founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney-Dreamworks imprint on Quibi.

So, in the remake of The Most Dangerous Game with The Hunger Game’s Liam Hemsworth, a Detroit down-and-out denizen of a decaying city willing to sell his soul to get the money for his wife’s cancer treatment to corporate exec Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who is sheltered in a gleaming tower, has some resonance with the contemporary situation. However, a more daring casting with an African-American actor in the lead might have resounded at the moment, because of the Georgia hunting and killing by an ex-investigator of the black jogger Aumaud Arbery. It might have highlighted the way this kind of hunting of African-American men not only persists in the U.S. but is rationalized by the system, as the murderers in Georgia were only arrested two months after in the wake of a national public outcry. But this kind of radical envisioning of deep-seated racism, which is the subject of the film Get Out, might have upset the mindless entertainment formula that in the end may doom Quibi to irrelevance.

Flipped, where two disgruntled workers decide to create their own Home Fixer Upper show is simply Quibi nodding in its fictional series to the mindless decider and influencer mentality that it is also promoting in its non-fiction entries.

Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright in some ways shows the real limitations of the form. The first series of horror episodes, which will highlight all 50 U.S. states, takes place in Michigan and incorporates elements of Raimi’s own A Simple Plan, in this case centering around greed for gold with the more traditionally spooky elements of his Evil Dead. The problem is that once you figure out what the horror payoff is for each episode, even an eight-minute episode begins to feel about two-and-a-half minutes too long. Quibi may become the victim of its own abbreviated form – since there really is little development, the audience may wander. Meanwhile Quibi will have done its job of further destroying our capacity for empathy, reflection and commitment.

The best of the opening round of Quibi series is the teen murder mystery When the Streetlights Go On, which, given the dark nature of its subject matter which concerns teen murders, really would have been much better titled When the Streetlights Go Off, and which features but does not star Queen Latifah. The mystery is compelling and the total length of the ten episodes clocks it at about the length of a film. Here the problem is the lack of depth in each episode, which must climax and then restart. This retards any actual character development because of the addictive imperative of forcing the viewer to the next episode.

Lockdown is being relaxed and workers are starting to come out of their homes. For many, this will involve leaving their homes to face unsafe working conditions and governments which do too little in the way of testing and screening. Is Quibi to be their only solace on the trip to and from their first, second, even third jobs? The lasting contribution of this service may be to convince more and more workers that they want more from the limited leisure time that is offered them than “quick bites” which are really just mental junk food.