The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series
Thursday, 25 July 2024 01:13

The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series

Dennis Broe previews some upcoming TV series. Image above: Machine, now streaming on Arte 

What follows are a few global series worth watching in the coming months, along with a few not worth watching, and a few that have at least a curiosity quotient. These prereviews are of series at two French TV Fests: Series Mania, which bills itself as “where series begin” and is the largest festival of its kind; and from the International TV Festival titled Canneseries, on the site of the more famous Cannes Film Festival.

Each festival gives out final awards in different categories, and there were telling moments at each awards ceremony. At Series Mania, with the grand jury prize about to be bestowed, a young woman with a mild teargas canister took to the podium to garner support for the farmer’s protest, the “Cause Agricole,” that has shaken France, with farmers on their tractors barricading key cities including Paris because of the rising price of supplies. She was quickly led off the stage and not a word was said or written about her protest – in a way a fitting reminder that series TV usually fails to confront or else represses the crises going on around it.

At Cannes, the grand prize was awarded to The Zweiflers, a German series about the history of a Jewish family delicatessen which links the family’s contemporary survival to their enduring the Holocaust. One of the team members noted that the series was important because it was made for and appeared on German TV, allowing the creators to “confront their perpetrators.”

However, as the cast was leaving another member returned to the podium to make a positive reference to Israel. This seemed to be a deliberate attempt to counter the brave message from Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest, at the recent Academy Awards, questioning the Zionist perversion of the principles of Judaism in Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza. The twin pronouncements illustrate how the Jewish Holocaust is both a bitter reminder of European violence and of how it can justify ongoing contemporary holocausts.

The Good

Machine —This series, written by Thomas (A Prophet) Bidegain, available to be streamed for free on the Arte website crosses the always vibrant French social realist tradition with Kung Fu sequences. A young woman, escaped most likely from the French military, hiding out in a small town and counselled by a Marxist worker of colour, combats factory goons intent on breaking a strike in support of keeping the factory in France instead of the buyer’s intention of moving it to Poland to save money. The male-female camaraderie and the concealed power of the female combatant echoes the Gina Davis/Samuel L. Jackson film The Long Kiss Goodnight and makes for a compelling ride.

Dates IRL—This Norwegian series touchingly and with a good deal of humour confronts the problem of a generation raised in a virtual reality and not as the titled phrase suggests “In Real Life.” A 25-year-old, Ida, with an online relationship in the U.S. must enter the dating world when he “cheats” on her by having a physical relationship in his town. The dating world she enters though shows the strains of the online “reality” as she encounters one date whose sex life seems to have been torn from his own online porn activity and another who, possibly also for the same reason, climaxes “in eight seconds.” Very wise, satirical rendering of our current shattered reality, pointing up also that English is the digital language shared by the online couple, with its prominence indicating the global dominance of American tech.


Disko 76: liberation on the dance floor 

Disko 76—This is the most exuberant and liberatory of all the new series. Fleeing a bland marriage and an overbearing father whose oppressive rigidity recalls the Nazi era, the young German woman Doro and her more reluctant brother discover the glamour and freedom of the dance floor through the intervention of Black American G.I.s, and then open their own disco in the small town of Bochum. The music hums and the dancing, especially of a dance team, the male member of which Doro falls for, is a sensational revival of how, like rap later, the Disco era liberated not only the dance floor but the zeitgeist around it.

Operation Sabre—A tight, taut Serbian series which recounts how a Prime Minister falls victim to gangsters. The series set before the NATO bombing is very pro-NATO intervention, but it does offer a brisk recounting of an investigation into the affair with the music, which quotes Mission Impossible, constantly throbbing in the background and keeping this tale—which recounts how a TV journalist and an ingenue mob member helped bring the scandal to light— humming. The kind of ’70s Alan (The Parallax View) Pakula-type political thriller that has almost disappeared in the West.

Dark Horse—A Danish series about how the sins and insecurities of a mother, who constantly packs up and flees, are visited on her daughter as she lands in a tiny Danish town and tries to accommodate herself to the school “hot” boy by cooking her mother’s ketamine, leading to disastrous results. A cautionary tale where the blame falls not on the daughter, but on the parent’s own anxiety and neglect.

Blackout—A Korean series about a teen drunkard whose last high school binge may have resulted in the death of two girls. He cannot remember what happened because he drank so much, but his traces are all over a bloody scene that might have been the murder location. He is sent to prison, released ten years later, and now must confront his past and figure out who may have actually committed the crime in a town that hates him. A well-worn trope (Savage River, Back to Life, Rectify) but one that always, as here, produces an invigorating series that challenges the justice system.

The Bad

 DB2 Hors competition Maxima

Maxima: 10 percent dates 1 percent  

Maxima—Billed as “The Crown but in the Netherlands,” this series about an Australian investment banker working in New York who slowly falls for a Dutch prince is not a rags-to riches but rather a rich-to-richer tale. It asks the poignant question, “Can a girl from the 10 percent ever really be happy with a boy from the 1 percent?” Opening teaser, supposedly the most dramatic moment of the series, has the banker screaming at her royal mate, “You’re telling me my father can’t come to the wedding?” It’s all downhill from there.

Fiasco—This Netflix French production is about a fledgling director whose adventures on the set go horribly wrong. As so often happens with French humour, it punches neither up – that is, at the power structure (Netflix) financing the film – nor (thankfully) down at the crew, but rather sideways at the foibles of the “well-meaning” director. The fiasco is not only in the onscreen production but also in the meagre attempt here at satire-less humor. TV biz satire is done much better, pointedly and with actual humor by The Larry Sanders Show and the underrated Episodes.

The Source—This French police series, titled Ourika in French, views the 2005 uprising in the banlieue or Parisian ghetto from the point of view of a rookie cop and his gangster brother, neatly eliding the protest of a people who are the constant victims of French state neglect. Disgusting elitist claptrap.

DB3 Hotel 

Hotel Cocaine: a series that disappears up your nose 

Hotel Cocaine—This mirthless series by Narcos creator Chris Brancato, centred around a Miami hotel at the height of both the disco and cocaine frenzy, unlike Disco ’76, misses the exuberance of the moment in the decision to save money by not buying the rights to disco hits, and by its ill-conceived idea that watching gangsters put stuff up their nose is sexy and engaging. It traces the conflict of two Cuban brothers, the manager of the hotel and a drug lord, in a well-worn trope which is executed grimly and unimaginatively. 

Soviet Jeans—Latvian series set in Riga in the 1970s whose hero, presented as a rebel, is a petty crook on the lookout for blue jeans and Walkmans, which to him signify freedom in a heavily regulated and surveilled society. The problem here is the commercial alternative to an oppressive state is the detritus of market capitalism.

After The Party—New Zealand show starring Brit Commonwealth stalwarts Peter Mullen and Robyn Malcolm in a series where Malcolm’s rude, offensive, and self-righteous schoolteacher is gaslighted by Mullen’s superficially endearing ex-husband. The problem with the series is that the Malcolm character is not just a difficult woman – we’ve seen that before and it often works – but rather a domineering and oppressive one who is right at every turn, even as she attempts to control her students. It’s like cheering on the bellicose Kissinger disciple Hilary Clinton over the corrupt racist Donald Trump, when in fact it’s very difficult to tell which one is more insidious. In this series, as in real life, the answer is both.

The (possibly) Interesting

 DB4 Camo

Ben Gazzara’s mob boss pontificating in Il Camorrista 

Il Camorrista/The Vatican—The first, directed by Cinema Paradiso’s Giuseppe Tornatore, stars Ben Gazzara as a Southern Italian mobster. The 1986 series, which was also shot as Tornatore’s first film, was never released because the mobster it was clearly based on threatened the director and producers both legally and physically. With he and his wife now deceased, the series is finally getting a release. High point of a series that features a flawless Gazzara is his appearance in episode 4 before the magistrate where he is charged with over 300 killings. He waves his hands and professes (the original English title of the film was The Professor) to have no idea why he is there since he only ever wanted to help people.

The Belgium documentary The Vatican, a kind of lukewarm treatment of the corruption and sexual crimes of that institution, has a remarkably similar scene of a cardinal, himself perhaps implicated in embezzling funds, claiming that likewise he also “only wants to help people.”

Herrhausen – The Banker and The BombAn almost documentary portrayal of the Deutsche Bank high official who created a sensation in the financial world by in 1987, at the height of the global and particularly Latin American debt crisis, proclaiming that banks should be in the business of forgiving debt to allow Third World countries to grow. Herrhausen then “pioneers” female integration into the banking hierarchy and embraces computers as part of the beginning dominance of financialization. He is monitored by the CIA for his stand on debt but also eventually the victim of, as the series has it, a combination of the East German Stasi and the Red Army who are sheltered and aided in the Arab cities of Baghdad and Damascus. Yeah to the expose of the “dangers” of Herrhausen’s wanting to cancel debt. Nay to the way the series represents his latter “improvements” as neutral and the paranoid way it brings together disparate elements which oppose him.

Apples Never Fall—New centre of conservative luxury, West Palm Beach, is the site of this family expose and mystery series starring an imposing Annette Benning as a supposedly happy wife gone missing. Apples is yet another adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel, incisive in Pretty Little Lies, insipid in Perfect Strangers. The mystery element works well here but the supposed “exposing” of family secrets mostly amounts to sibling bickering about which parent loved who the best.

DB5 Malays 

Three Tears in Borneo: where have all the Malaysians gone? 

Three Tears In Borneo—A Taiwanese series set in Malaysia about three brothers who get commandeered into the Japanese army and must participate in atrocities performed on the Australian prisoners in World War II. An unusual setup but a strange perspective, that in points exonerates the jailers while never mentioning the Malays surrounding the prison, thus mimicking the Japanese imperialism of the time.   

House of Gods—The positive part of this series is that it offers a perspective on the customs of an Iraqi mosque in Australia. It has been described as “Succession in a mosque,” and that’s the negative part, the overlay of Western politics on a series that could have shown more of the inner workings and manners without the ultra-competitive,“electoral” overlay.

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit
Thursday, 25 July 2024 01:13

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit

Dennis Broe explains the decline in the quality as well as quantity of streamed series, and the exploitative use of Artifical Intelligence by the industry. Photo above: SORA’s “artificial” creation of a walk in Tokyo 

Last year’s retrenchment in the world of streaming TV is continuing with Netflix holding even on bankrolling series at $17 billion but with all the other streamers cutting back. The big money players are searching for, as one studio exec put it, the “right show shot in a cost effective location,” where “it is possible to make a whole series for the cost of an indie film.”

The industry way of portraying these cutbacks, seeing the glass half full, is there is now an emphasis on “quality over quantity,” but when one observes what is coming down the road it’s hard not to see these cutbacks as simply less quantity amid decreasing quality. The new emphasis on safe investments is being translated into increased concentration on what the industry terms IP, intellectual property, ie going with what has already been established in another medium (books, films, music) or in television itself.


Baywatch uber alles: beefcake meets cheesecake 

One look at the low end of production, that is the TV network pilot season, is a scary reminder of what this trend entails. CBS is chiming in with: Matlock, perhaps with an AI Andy Griffith; a Young Sheldon spinoff with the original, itself a spinoff of Big Bang Theory, having just ended; a Young Sheldon version of NCIS titled NCIS Origins with Mark Harmon’s narration (like Sheldon’s in Young Sheldon) of his on-screen younger self; and Watson, a Sherlock Holmes series without Sherlock and with the good doctor taking up the crimefighting duties.

Fox, in an even less daring move, is reviving the sexist Baywatch and NBC, besides Suits: L.A., a spinoff of the cable series, is dressing up its revivals as St. Denis Medical could easily be St. Elsewhere and Dr. Wolf’s gruff medical practitioner is supposed to remind viewers of House.

The high end of this lack of originality was on display in a Max (Warner Bros) presentation which trumpeted Season 2 of Game of Thrones, The Penguin from the DC Batman franchise and a series based on the Harry Potter books and films. All three of these fall into the blockbuster category, that is the streamers copying the Hollywood studio format that began in the ’70s while shelving original series, which were what brought Max subsidiary HBO to prominence in the first place, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s new book Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed upended TV.

As more and more series rely more and more on IP or already proven material, what was once a “Golden Age” of originality begins to skew close to the now partially abandoned Hollywood studio format of sequels and comic book adaptations, a format that is working less and less for the movie studios as audiences decline, because of the lack of creativity.

 S3 gone

Gone Producer, a synthetically created game show 

The other major trend, which has creators terrified and investors and studio executives “excited”, is the rapidly expanding use in every phase of the business of artificial intelligence, AI. Perhaps the scariest projection of the technology, described by one longtime independent film assistant director as “nothing but plagiarizing software,” is a new gameshow on Korean TV titled Gone Producer. In this nightmare gameshow scenario, the entire series is cast, directed, and produced by AI which also judges the videos that contestants submit in a competition.

According to the studio, “The fun factor is not only that the show is produced by AI, it is also the contestants getting confused and bewildered confronting the AI.” In other words, the show not only uses the service to replace jobs, it also makes a virtue of the fact that, as everyone knows, AI often “hallucinates,” that is returns incomprehensible information and opinions.

The contestants and the viewers are asked then, as the media critic Theodore Adorno put it, to participate in their own demise. Korea is well-known for its game show formats, having produced a “spin off” of the Emmy-winning fictional series Squid Game and Gone Producer has already been sold to Sweden and Norway.

Less Is More?

These observations about the business come from two recent French TV festivals, Lille’s Series Mania, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Cannes’ MIPTV, with this year’s meeting of buyers and distributors ending the convention’s 61-year run. The latter had 130 companies represented but was still a shell of its former self, a sacrifice to the new austerity where, because of the entry fee and the Cannes boardwalk prices, buyers consolidated by going to a February conference in London or to the larger MIPTV conference in October.

Walking through what was once production house stalls and was now an empty space that looked like a parking garage, one former attendee mourned the passing of a place in which she said she had spent many years.

The streamers and television magnates in general are attempting to combat churn (subscribers signing in watching the few creative series on the streamer then signing out), the fact that working-class audiences have less to spend because of continuing inflation, and the streamers’ raising of their subscription rates.

The way they are choosing to combat this situation though betrays a lack of imagination, with the same assistant director suggesting that instead of AI replacing writers and actors, the technology might better be used to replace CEOs and studio executives.

At the Series Mania Forum, discussing the business of television, it was reported that “Peak TV” was over, because in the U.S. the number of series declined from almost 600 two years ago to 516 last year. In Europe not only are the number of series declining, but so are the number of episodes, by an average of one episode per series – and also the length of each episode, now cut by almost 10 minutes. One of the original promises of streaming TV was both would be determined by what was needed to tell the story and that priority is vanishing.

 S4 Isabelle

Isabelle Adjani on television 

There is also more monetization of back catalogues, using former material to create series and the sale of catalogue entries, so that subscribers who are looking for a show on their service may find that it has been sold to another service.

European series are trying to nab viewers by bringing to television now more faded film stars, a trick that was formerly used on American TV. In France Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) is starring in a series about family secrets and in the Netherlands Famke Janssen (Golden Eye) heads a cast in a series on the Amsterdam marijuana scene.

Another way of monetizing content without the peril of trying something new and original is selling the format to a different market, as the BBC has done with Ghosts, a hit on CBS in the U.S., harking back to, or trivializing, Hawthorne and the New England horror tradition and now being developed in a German version which commercializes the Romantic tradition in that country.

Sony TV’s Wayne Garvie explained to the Series Mania forum audience that the answer to the end of peak TV, “the boom,” is not necessarily “a bust” but rather just fewer shows with more quality. He almost immediately contradicted himself by then citing the superhero series The Boys which he said with its spinoffs “will go on for years”. In the same vein he noted that the problem with single season series, which have often been some of the most creative and awarded (think Chernobyl) is that “you can’t build a business on mini-series.”

The result of this cost-cutting and budgetary as well as creative retrenching, described at the Forum as the industry “looking for more reassuring content,” plus a demand on Wall Street that streamers show a profit, is that streaming audiences are declining to the point where the S&P accounting firm recently downgraded Paramount’s debt to “junk.”

The race is now on to see who will buy the streamer or if it will simply go under, since any buyer is now saddled with the company’s debt. In Europe the French streamer Salto is now defunct while the Scandinavian Viaplay, which was expanding into the U.S. and Britain, has had to cease that effort and return to its local audience.

Here Come The Machines

A main topic of both events was AI which, as in other industries, is being touted as a money-saving, cost-cutting entity. The “buzz” at the industry-oriented MIPTV centered around what the technology could do for producers and studio profit margins. Pre-conference,  The Hollywood Reporter ran a full page on AI’s “Buried Perils” without mentioning the thrust of its creators toward job destruction – and nowhere was there a conversation about how the lost jobs will be replaced.

The Series Mania Forum debated the issue but began with an opening presentation from two shills for the practice, who showed articles from the business press, including Bloomberg News, “proving” that AI was a boon to job creation. In The Future of Work, the French theorist Bernard Stiegler, citing an Oxford study predicting an ultimate 50 percent loss of employees when the technology was fully developed, decried the development as “the negation of know-how itself,” inducing “a functional stupidity.”


Shoshana Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism described the technological solution which is dreamed of by producers and studio execs which offers the illusion of “omniscience, control, and certainty” but where “the idea is not to heal instability – the corrosion of social trust and its broken bonds of reciprocity, dangerous extremes of inequality, regimes of exclusion – but to exploit the vulnerabilities produced by these conditions.”

The Series Mania Forum day was titled benignly “AI: The Technology We’d Love to Like” with one panel called “Past the Sideration,” a French word that the panel defined as “fascination” but which equally – and in this case more accurately – means “disturbance.”

A YouTube representative, a company owned by Google which is a leader in the race to dominate the field, proclaimed AI would allow “unprecedented speed” and its use would be “bold and responsible.”

Curbing the power of the unions

Clearly the implementation of AI is one part of a studio attempt to curb, in the wake of last summer’s writers’ and actors’ strikes, the growing power of the unions. Kate Ballard from the U.S. Writers’ Guild acknowledged that AI is moving faster than any contractual or legal limits that can be imposed on it, and said that the Guild had done the best they could to ensure that AI be a tool for writers, not a way of getting rid of them and that they would revisit the situation again in two and a half years, when the current contract expires.

One of the claims for AI in job creation is that the machines need “prompters,” since it is crucial that what is fed into them be specific and limited, but the host of one of the panels revealed that she had just read an article stating that AI creators were now working on machines that could learn to prompt, thus eliminating the most fruitful arena for new jobs.

S5 cotton

The Cotton Club, the movie and not the AI fabrication, erroneously set in Chicago

At MIPTV, one developer, who claimed that AI could be used in every phase of film and television production, listed for example programs such as Storyfit, designed to predict whether a story will be commercially successful; Storyboarder, which produces storyboards for shooting; and SORA, which creates synthetic AI images and which produced an intriguing image of a smoky 1920s nightclub but which claimed that The Cotton Club, the title of the film, was in Chicago, not in New York’s Harlem.

A scarier development was that another CEO had trained AI to identify the predominant emotion of each scene (happy, sad, fearful, joyful) in a film or series and select clips aimed at enticing particular audiences. The ultimate goal, one CEO claimed, was “to be able to make a complete film from your bedroom.”

Craig Peters, from Getty Images, stated that the answer to controlling the device was not in legislation, such as the recent European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, but rather through “all of us putting our collective minds together.”

We are not in severance 1 

Perhaps the unions will also put their collective minds together?

This solution seems like a naïve way of warding off legislation in the U.S., but what Peters did explain was that with the drive to feed more and more data into the machines to train them, the IP of books, movies, films, songs would soon be exhausted. The current drive is to feed as much personal data into the machines as possible, that is, to turn each of our individual experiences into training vehicles and to “harvest” this “personal IP.”

It wasn’t long ago that the major catchphrase in the information industry was “big data” used for its predictive capabilities. Now that has been replaced by the quest for synthetic creation, which might someday eliminate the human element entirely and which would be the next level up in current cost-cutting.

Instead of, as the writer and showrunner Frank Lipsitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) put it, making “us as writers, better, faster smarter”, studio heads envision using AI to ‘scale’ creativity, that is to simply produce more, faster.

The battle is on around AI in the film and television industry, like everywhere else. Will it simply become a cost-cutting tool fostering mass unemployment, or an enhancement to creators in the industry, enabling leaps in original and relevant content?