La Brea & YOBO: You Only Broadcast Once

When a new majority takes over in congress its members fret about how hard to go after their agenda. They want to deliver what they promised their most ardent supporters but don’t want to go so far that they alienate the swing voters who decide elections. My response to this fear is “YOGO: You only govern once.” No one’s guaranteed a second term, so govern the way you want to govern and don’t hold back thinking you’ll get this chance again.

The same philosophy can apply to telling your story television. YOBO: You only broadcast once. Don’t leave a story in your pocket for a second or third season that may never air. La Brea is definitely following that mindset. It’s inaugural 10-episode run on NBC is plowing through at least two seasons worth of reveals. Here are two that stand out:

1. Finding the survivors’ camp site in present-day Los Angeles. This is such a huge thing and possibly my favourite development in the first season. Discovering where the survivors lived allowed potential rescuers to know the people who fell down the sinkhole were still alive, but more intriguingly allowed the survivors to communicate back to the present day. How cool is that? 

This reveal could have been held for the end of the season, and maybe it would have carried more of a punch if they did so. It’s certainly what Lost would have done. (Imagine if the Flight 815 survivors discovered the hatch in episode four!) La Brea’s faster pace meant it had to be established early so Gavin could find the note from Eve and save them from crashing the rescue plane. But still, investing more time building characters early on could have pushed this back to the end of season one.

A slower show could have also used this to send more messages back to the present. I would have loved to see Eve write more letters to Izzy and Gavin, or a B-story with every character writing a letter to their present-day loved ones (who, by the way, we really haven’t seen for anyone else). La Brea doesn’t seem interested in tugging that hard on our heart strings.

2. Gavin is Isiah. This does way more than reveal Gavin’s visions are actually memories. It establishes someone, or at least Gavin, can be alive in both timelines—at different ages. That’s a huge shift in the foundation of the story because now we aren’t “just” dealing with a mystery time portal. We’re in a world where there are two Gavins. Actually, we might not be in “a” world at all and instead be dealing with a multiverse. (Fringe!)

Or they could just be playing with what time travel means in La Brea’s universe. I hope not, and they should have established that better by now with a “Whatever Happened, Happened” kind of episode. The closest they’ve come is showing that preventing the rescue plane from trying to take off in 10k BC magically removed its wreckage from the present-day dig site. Maybe that was it the explainer episode, actually. It didn’t really land that way for me (pun…intended) though they have two more episodes in season one to sort it out.

There have been other reveals I consider softer, or more character based: Ty’s terminal illness, Veronica being Lily’s kidnapper instead of her sister, Marybeth saving Lucas from his dad’s plan to rat him out to the feds, and Eve and Levi having a romantic past. I probably sound like a hypocrite for discounting character reveals after writing so much about the show glossing over character development. I’m okay with that. The emotional resonance of these reveals was lighter than it could have been.

La Brea’s speed is probably dictated by only having 10 episodes. If it had 23 the way Lost did maybe it would be letting things unfold more slowly. Given the business reality of broadcast television now, I’d be surprised if we ever see a primetime serial get 23 episodes in its first season ever gain. So be it.

With all this in mind, it’s time for an accountability session.

My La Brea pilot review laid out four reasons why the show would fail. But NBC announced a second season, so clearly the show isn’t failing. Let’s see how my original thoughts have held up and explore what the show has done to improve.

NBC’s new fall drama La Brea shares [the possibility to be “the next Lost” label] as well. Which is why after watching the pilot twice I am so frustrated. Like so many other failed network dramas, La Brea runs right past its characters and into the arms of what it thinks is a tremendous mystery. That gets the formula backwards. Any show looking to be TNL has to embrace its characters and let them walk us to the mystery.

I still think this is mainly true but like I said earlier, with 10 episodes there’s really no time to settle in and tell stories.

This shows up most in the episode ending in Gavin trying to fly a drone into the sinkhole with two fighter jets ready to shoot him down. Were you scared for Gavin? Even though we know the show isn’t killing him we should at least feel tension. I didn’t. To do so I would have to either love him so much I can’t bear the thought of him dying or hate him so much I hope he does.

Other characters are getting better treatment. Ty’s terminal illness makes him sympathetic, Rohan’s comic relief is timely and informative, and Marybeth’s strained maternal relationship with Lucas all make for characters we want to latch onto. So that’s good. But Eve, Gavin, Izzy and Josh aren’t interesting at all. It’s like the show settled on one main family but only wanted to give depth to the supporting characters. Weird.

An almost laughable reveal about the hole’s location. Eve is standing by the ambulance and happens to notice the outline of the Hollywood hills painted on its back door exactly matches the hills she’s staring at. Putting two and two together she tells Ty and Sam she thinks they’re still in Los Angeles. To my previous point, the show could have had the characters spend their first day in the hole facing a drama/adventure/obstacle that led to them realizing where they are in a heart-stopping way. That would have been compelling.

That was still bad, but it’s doing better at its reveals.The woman on her death bed telling Eve about Gavin/Isiah is a good example. It wasn’t jaw-dropping but it was at least not so ridiculous.

The hole wasn’t a character. For a show set in an alternate world to be compelling, the world itself has to be its own character. It has to have the same presence the lead characters have. It has to be put under a microscope and revealed the same way a character is. No sign we’re going to get that here.

This is getting a little better. The hole’s main role in the story should be putting the characters’ lives in danger or placing a challenge between them and what they want. Both will give them something to react to over the course of an episode. The first several episodes overlooked this, but since then the mysterious hole closed and a snowstorm blew through (a weak snow storm anyway). I hope to see more of that during the rest of this season.

The least interesting ending you can imagine. A saber-toothed tiger (or something like it) emerges from the jungle. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

This is getting better in tandem with the improved reveals. I’m curious how they’ll end the season finale. I’m sure it will have a cliffy.

So there it is. La Brea has given us a lot of twists and turns through its first eight episodes, and it’s holding up better than I thought it would. I’m interested to see how they bring season one home.

Quick thoughts on HBO’s Hacks

I struggle with shows like Hacks where what seems like the main thing is really just the car for the main thing to ride in. Hacks’ main thing is the relationship between a Las Vegas comedy legend, Deborah Vance, who’s resisting the end of her career and a young comedy writer trying to save hers after being canceled over a Twitter post. Their relationship plays out in the course of the writer, Ava, being thrust into the role of Deborah’s first writing partner. Ava’s job is the car in my tortured analogy.

It’s not that I don’t like shows setup this way. I actually do. But it takes a while for me to get there, and that’s the bumpy part. After the characters come together in Las Vegas (Ava begins in Los Angeles) and Deborah accedes to having a writer for the first time in her 40-year career, I’m expecting Hacks to be an office comedy with plots driven by what they need to do during the course of their work. Deborah’s got a show tonight? Something weird happens to Ava and they work it into the act.

Hacks could probably do good at being that show. The writing is sharp and there’s enough chemistry between the two actors to make it enjoyable. Instead it moves the work into the background so the relationship can take center stage. Because of that, it shines.

One episode has the pair going to a spa retreat for Deborah to get a touchup on her eyelids, only for Ava to end up in the hospital with an exploded cyst. By the time the episode ends they are no closer to refreshing Deborah’s act or saving the weekend gigs keeping her career alive, but their bond is stronger through the shared experience. I complain a lot about shows that sacrifice character for plot—La Brea cough cough—so I was delighted to see Hacks be all about its two lead characters.

If I had any bone to pick it would be that Ava doesn’t seem to be a very good comedy writer. She is funny. Her and Deborah have thoroughly enjoyable fights with each insult eclipsing the last. But when Ava has to write for Deborah she can’t come up with anything, and we don’t see much of Deborah’s act at all so we don’t get a real sense for if Ava is actually helping her. I’m fine with that not being in the show’s background but I would like to see that Ava’s hope for a career in comedy is at least somewhat justified. The joke that got her canceled wasn’t even that funny. In fact the first episode closes with her and Deborah spitballing on what offensive jokes would have been better.

That said, Hacks is an easy watch and I recommend it as a show that can fill your pre-bedtime streaming slot.

Succession season three needs to move on

The first two seasons of Succession were fantastic. But it needs to move on. It’s at that tipping point a lot of TV shows seem to arrive at when their initial story is exhausted and it’s time to transition to something else. That’s when we find out if a show has staying power. 

Take Lost for an example. Live Together, Die Alone really marked the demarcation between the survivors of Flight 815 finding ways to live on a deserted island and a more expansive universe of characters, timelines and conflicts. And,yeah, millions of viewers checked out as the story got increasingly hard to follow. But that transition is what earned Lost—and most long-running TV shows—the later half of its run. Without hatches and flash forwards the characters on Lost would have had nothing to do, and you can only discover so many things in one jungle before we all wish they would have just drowned on Michael’s boat. 

I fear we’ll have the same wish for Succession if they don’t resolve the battle for the top job at Waystar Royco soon. We had two tremendous seasons of the Roy family’s C-suite tug-of-war. Kendall’s atom bomb of a press conference to close season two set up perfectly to resolve the fight at the start of season three and transition the show to what comes next. 

Instead it’s slowing down. So far this season we have one entire episode telling the immediate aftermath of Kendall’s presser and another focused on the four Roy siblings arguing in a bedroom. This is boring. It’s time for the story to give us something else so the show can take us to a point in the future when we say “Remember when Succession was just about which of the kids would take over the company?” 

We’ve seen all there is to see of these characters in that framework. If they don’t get to a new storyline fast we’re going to get bored and this wonderful show is going to fall off the map.

5 steps to fixing baseball on TV

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The week is off to a good start but you’re tired. You plop on the couch. What are you going to watch?

Your streaming subscriptions are out of control, so you have options. Try The Crown? It won Emmys. So did Ted Lasso. Is Apple TV still free? They say Handmade’s Tale recovered after season two. Wait, The Voice is on. You can stream that anytime on Peacock though. Speaking of Peacock, The Office would really hit the spot. The Office it is.

It’s 7:02 p.m. As you navigate to the Peacock app you remember the Padres are in town. Aren’t they good this year? You exit the AppleTV input and get to NBC Sports Bay Area as it cuts to commercial. Crap. You scroll TikTok until the game comes back and, wait, they’re still not playing yet. You check the time. 7:06 p.m. Another commercial? You just wanted to watch the ball game. This is a lot of work. Back to Apple TV>Peacock>The Office.

By 9:30 you finished five episodes. How’d that Giants game go? Back to the cable box. Giants lead 6-2 in the seventh inning. You decide to watch this for a bit. By 10 p.m. you’re asleep.

You might be wondering the point of this blog post. There’s a lot of discussion about the state of the game of baseball, and I want to wade into it with a perspective I haven’t heard anyone take. Which is this: 

Sports are no longer sports. They’re content. Baseball is content.

With that perspective, baseball’s biggest competitor is not the NFL. It’s Netflix. It’s Hulu. It’s all the other things you could watch on a Tuesday night. Or a Sunday afternoon. Or together with friends. The rise of on-demand streaming has thrown what used to be separate cohorts of viewers into an omnibus audience of content consumers. Not necessarily by producing better content, though peak TV certainly counts as better content, but simply by becoming options.

Sports leagues kept up by moving their content online, but I assert the net-new content is close to zero. Baseball and basketball still play 162 and 82 respectively. Only football really expanded as college created a short playoff and the NFL added one week to its regular season. You could conceviably calculate an increase in sports content by including all the ancillary programming surrounding it: Pre-game, post-game, debate, previews, reviews, etc. But even that can’t keep up with all the content flooding the market from streaming platforms. The end effect of this content inflation is sports loses ground while the volume of non-sports content skyrockets.

There are some ways sports will never be able to compete with streaming content. Games happen in real-time and are hard to avoid being spoiled; streaming content is on-demand and spoilers are more easily avoided. Sports are also longer than most content types. Even a swift NBA game is long enough to stream five or six 30-minute episodes. Baseball—as fans are painfully aware—is a three-hour commitment if you’re lucky. Most games with a 7:10 p.m. first pitch will end closer to 10:30 than 10:00. One night with your local ball club could be spent watching three episodes of Bridgerton. 

Thinking about baseball as content starts to crystalize how fixing the product—ie, the game—can’t be separated from fixing the way the content is delivered and consumed. Baseball could implement pitch clocks, ban shifts, insitute a universal DH and still not secure its future if it doesn’t address how and where it presents the game to fans. 

Here are five ideas for how to accomplish that.

Solve the blackout problem. Sports leagues are run by a commissioner selected by team owners, but in reality that commissioner is beholden to the league’s television partners. The broadcast and regional sports networks call the shots on commercial breaks and game times (see the next idea), but more critically on how and where users access MLB content. To the point: They simply won’t allow baseball to do anything that would potentially eat away at their subscription revenue. I live two blocks from Oracle Park and can’t watch Giants games. Not because they’d rather have me buy a ticket but because they’d rather have me subscribe to a cable platform that collects carriage fees. 

Totally understandable. And totally destroying access to the game. Modern content consumers expect all content to be available when and where they want it. In a marketplace where streaming subscriptions range from $5 to $20 per month they also don’t expect to be asked to fork over $55 or more for a cable subscription just to get a handful of sports channels. That’s a completely non-competitive position for the cable outlets. 

Even if you are a cable subscriber, you can’t validate your subscritpion with the MLB app and watch local teams in the same interface as out-of-market games. You have to switch from MLB to Bally Sports or NBCSN or whatever app carries the hometown nine. I can’t underemphasize how annoying that is. It means you basically can’t switch between two games. Again, baseball stands in the way the content we want when we want it. 

Move up first pitch. People are conditioned that new content starts at the top and bottom of the hour. It’s why the TBS superstation shifted its schedule back five minutes; it wanted you to watch more TBS by breaking that habit.

Why then does baseball delay first pitch until 7:10 p.m.? Every regional sports network airs at least 30 minutes of pregame content already. What’s the point of making viewers sit through another 10? Oh right: Broadcast partners want those two valuable commercial breaks before the real content starts. Great. Meanwhile the casual viewer is already second-screening by first pitch or has tuned out all together. 

Contrast that with NFL content. When you tune in at 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday you get kickoff at 1:02. No extra commercial breaks, no fluff content following the hour long pregame show. Sit down, tune in—BAM—football. Baseball should steal the NFL’s idea and move first pitch up eight minutes. It won’t shorten the length of the game or improve its pace, but it will create a sense of immediacy for viewers and give them the content they want when they want it. Why, that almost sounds like on-demand. Scary.

Shift shifts to a graphic. Infield shifts changed the game, and television broadcasts haven’t kept up. Fans have no idea where fielders are positioned unless TV cuts away to show the infielders or announcers verbally convey who is standing where. Each moment in a broadcast is valuable and something as common as shifts shouldn’t have to take up that much time. Luckily there’s an easy solution.

Every network displays a graphic showing the runners on base, looking something like this:

Screenshot of a baseball game with the score, count, outs and men on base in the upper left corner.

Why not use that same graphic to show where the fielders are positioned around the infield? Just like the score bug freed announcers from having to recite the count, outs and score this simple change would give fans the information they need while letting announcers provide more compelling commentary.

Highlight pitch sequencing. Pitch sequencing is one of the most important aspects of the game. Most broadcasts ignore it entirely in their commentary and graphics. Both need to change, I’ll focus on the graphic aspect here and address the broadcasters’ contribution in a later point. 

The adoption of widescreen HDTV did great for showing more of the football field and the hockey rink. But for baseball…we get a lot of infield grass. This is wasted screen real estate. There is plenty of room on either side of center screen for a concise graphic showing the type, speed and location of each pitch during an at-bat. Viewers would have an immediate visual to follow if they want to, or to ignore if they don’t. Credit to ESPN and MLB Network for tinkering with this idea by occasionally putting the type and speed under the score bug in the upper left of their screen. Every network should follow. 

Re-frame the meaning of action. It’s a common complaint when comparing baseball with football. “Football has a play every 40 seconds. Baseball might go five minutes without any action.” Oh really? 

There’s a hidden conversation between pitcher and catcher before every pitch, and pitches happen at least once every 20-30 seconds. To make the game broadcasts more compelling content, broadcasters need to do better at peeling back the curtain of what goes into every pitch. What’s the scouting report on this hitter? (A heat map could easily integrate into the pitch sequence graphic or the electronic strike zone—which, by the way, proves fans will adapt to graphics overlaying the game action.) How’d they pitch him last at bat? How did missing with two sliders affect what he can throw on 2-0?

“So you want commentators to yammer on like Chris Colinsworth after every pitch?” No. It has to be done in the course of a plate appearance. At-bats presented that way would turn a ho-hum game into almost non-stop action. Isn’t that what they say the game needs? You don’t have to create action by instituting a pitch clock or banning the shift (both of which I support and would definitely be wise moves). You can simply change the way the game is commentated to re-define what action means. 

I know what you’re thinking. “Come on, seamhead. The casual fan doesn’t want to be bombarded with stats and graphics and graphics about stats. You’ll turn more people away with your analytics and numbers.” Oh? More people than are turned away by the four-hour game I went to last week when one team changed pitchers three times in the first two innings? What do you think those Nielsen numbers looked like at 10:30 p.m.? 

Get over the famous former players. A personality already proven to be marketable is a rare thing in television so we all get why former players are a draw for the networks. But just because a player sold jerseys doesn’t mean he’ll be a compelling broadcaster. I’m willing to bet for every A-Rod and Justin Morneau on TV there’s a former player who didn’t get his own shirseys but could convey the game in a more compelling way than those two. Find them. Train them up. Put them on the air. 

There you have it. I’m certain baseball and its broadcast partners compile mountains of research on what viewers want to see, and therefore the television product we get is the sum total of that research. I’m a data-driven marketer who can hardly fault them for that. But as a baseball fan and avid consumer of television I’m convinced the league is out of step with every trend in television content.

Baseball already lost its place in our sports landscape to football and basketball. If it loses out in the competition among content providers it could be game over.

La Brea premiere runs to mystery, leaves characters behind

My dearest readers,

This blog began as a way to chronicle the wandering path I’m taking to replace the emptiness in my life after Lost. I’ve written about shows that were nothing like it but still provided season after season of entertainment. Some finished on a high note (Person of Interest) and others on very, very low notes (Game of Thrones) and some fizzled out (Revenge). These shows are fun if nothing else. 

But the shows that really catch my eye are the ones with the most potential to really be “The Next Lost”. Take Manifest as an example. It was supposed to be TNL but I turned vehemently against it. Flash Forward and The Event contended but really just because they aired near Lost’s final season. Neither was great and both failed to get a second season. Fox’s short-lived Terra Nova was the show I felt had the best chance to be TNL. It turned out to be only meh but had the same foundation as Lost: Characters out of place in a distinct and unknown world.

NBC’s new fall drama La Brea shares it as well. Which is why after watching the pilot twice I am so frustrated. Like so many other failed network dramas, La Brea runs right past its characters and into the arms of what it thinks is a tremendous mystery. That gets the formula backwards. Any show looking to be TNL has to embrace its characters and let them walk us to the mystery. 

Here’s all the reasons La Brea didn’t do that.

The pilot episode sped through an entire day. The episode began in the morning and ended at night, but I don’t feel like I saw a day’s worth of action. Here’s the timeline:

Morning—Eve is stuck in L.A. traffic near Curson & Wilshire while driving her daughter, Izzy, and son, Josh, to school. A massive sinkhole opens, swallowing every person and building for blocks in all directions. Josh falls in, Eve rushes back to save him only to suffer the same fate. Eve later wakes up in the sinkhole, we don’t know how long she was out.

Afternoon—Eve and Josh re-unite among the ruins of what fell into the hole and dozens of other people who the outside world thinks are casualties of the disaster. 

Late afternoon—A pack of wild animals attacks the camp, leaving Josh gravely wounded. We know it’s late afternoon because Marybeth, a cop in the outside world, tells Ty, a psychiatrist struggling with suicidal thoughts, it’s going to be dark soon.

Night—Eve, Ty and Sam, a Navy SEAL-turned-surgeon, find an ambulance with the medical supplies they hope will save Josh’s life.

Am I the only one who finds this a big miss? These are strangers in a strange land who went through a horrible trauma and La Brea gave us almost nothing about what that must have been like for them. It’s a missed storytelling opportunity, but also it’s bad episode construction. The writer and director did a poor job establishing the size of the hole’s world and how long it would take to move across it. Did Eve spend three hours or 30 minutes walking from where she woke up to where she found Josh? They were at camp (which is what this main area will become) for several hours before the animal attack. What did they do? We got a few scenes of them searching for supplies, but not nearly enough to indicate this took all day.  

An almost laughable reveal about the hole’s location. Like most viewers I picked up pretty early that falling through the hole sent the victims back in time. As the episode crept toward its finish with no real movement in that direction I figured they’d hold it off until a later week. Wrong! Eve is standing by the ambulance and happens to notice the outline of the Hollywood hills painted on its back door exactly matches the hills she’s staring at. Putting two and two together she tells Ty and Sam she thinks they’re still in Los Angeles. 

Oh. Set aside the fact that the Hollywood hills may have geographically changed since pre-historic times. What a joke of a way to tell your story. To my previous point, the show could have had the characters spend their first day in the hole facing a drama/adventure/obstacle that led to them realizing where they are in a heart-stopping way. That would have been compelling. Instead they made it an aha moment inspired by some painting on an ambulance. You’ve got to be kidding me. 

The hole wasn’t a character. For a show set in an alternate world to be compelling, the world itself has to be its own character. It has to have the same presence the lead characters have. It has to be put under a microscope and revealed the same way a character is. No sign we’re going to get that here. 

The least interesting ending you can imagine. A saber-toothed tiger (or something like it) emerges from the jungle. That’s it. That’s the tweet. Eve, Ty and Sam are probably in danger but the screen fades to black before we find out what happens. Not that we are even interested because there was already a wild animal attack earlier. I can’t picture why any writer, producer or network exec thought the threat of a second animal attack would make us tune in for week two. 

That is four reasons the show will fail and I haven’t even gotten to the world remaining in Los Angeles. Eve’s estranged husband, Gavin, crashed out of the military (literally) and has some visions. Shockingly, those visions prove prescient when he happens to dig a hole exactly where Eve lost her wedding ring when she woke up in the sink hole thousands or millions of years ago. Fate, I guess. Yawn. We also have the government on hand to build a tent city in a matter of hours and you know it’s keeping all kinds of secrets. Original. 

La Brea has enough characters to give each one their own episode and explore who they are and why they’re acting the way they are in their new life. But based on the pilot I don’t see it happening. At one point, one of the survivors says to another, “Maybe we’re just in an episode of Lost.”

Buddy, I knew episodes of Lost. And you’re in no episode of Lost.

Sincerely,

The Wandering Lostie