Tag Archives: television

One thing about The White Lotus

This was a good television show, made by Mike White, who wrote three episodes of Freaks and Geeks as well as running the excellent and little watched Laura Dern show Enlightened. This one, lots of people watched, and wrote thinkpieces about. Partly, I think, because the acting was really good, and viewers experienced the characters as actually existing humans more than one usually does while watching TV. Thus people were mad at them. And I think the writing about the show was probably a bit overconcerned with the question of who the show wanted you to be mad at, and whether these were the right people to be mad at.

This post won’t make any sense if you haven’t watched the show, and contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the show, I recommend you do so instead of reading my post! It’s good! (The show, not the post. The post is just OK.)

I just wanted to make an observation I didn’t see in the thinkpieces, which is the twinning of the characters of Rachel and Belinda. They are both committed to the idea that rich people are concentrations of resources, which with some skill can be extracted. They are both, in some sense, hacks. Rachel aims to be a writer; we are supposed to see her new husband (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential disrespect) Shane as a jerk for not taking her writing seriously, but simultaneously recognize that she’s not herself serious in her writing goals. Belinda gives a massage to a hotel guest (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential abandonment) played by Jennifer Coolidge, soothing her client with a routine that asks her to say “I am my own phallic mother and my own vaginal father” and throwing in a chant of the Gayatri Mantra. Nothing here suggests she has any special ability to heal; but Coolidge’s character imprints on her, promising her patronage, her own business bankrolled by Coolidge’s money.

This is the world they live in, this is their game — everything changes if you can get the roaming eye of wealth to land, out of all the places it could settle, on you.

But Belinda lets it get away. One of the neatest tricks of this series is the way Coolidge’s character at first appears to be played for slightly low-rent laughs, then for pity, only to finally reveal herself as the only person on the show who arrives at anything like real insight. She explains to Belinda that her impulse to fund Belinda’s House of Healing was just her impulsive way of trying to buy intimacy, creating another person bound to her by money — then she gives her a bunch of money anyway, but walks away. What follows is one of the show’s Big Scenes: Rachel asks Belinda for advice about her suddenly not-fully-enjoyable marriage, and Belinda just walks out, visibly weary and in pain. A lot of viewers have seen this as a triumphant moment, Belinda exerting real agency, refusing to perform emotional labor for yet another overprivileged guest, but I don’t think that’s exactly right. Rachel doesn’t pair with Coolidge here, she pairs with Belinda herself, and Belinda’s bitterness here is coming from the fact that Rachel has succeeded where she’s just failed.

Tagged , ,


Like a lot of people I’m watching WandaVision, the latest Marvel show. CJ is an MCU fanatic and this show, well-acted, imaginatively shot, and legible without extreme knowledge of Marvel lore, is a good one for us to watch together.

It has settled, on the surface, into being a more “normal” MCU show after doing a lot of really interesting stuff in the first half of the season. But weirdness remains, under the surface. For example (and now the rest of this is spoilers) — the scene where Wanda magically blasts a new rendition of her dead husband Vision out of her own abdomen is clearly shot as a childbirth scene, which makes Vision both her son and her husband, so the whole thing has suddenly taken on a Freudian cast which I don’t think is from the comics. And this explains the shock of the old expert witch Agatha Harkness, who tells Wanda she’s something that isn’t supposed to exist; she is “chaos magic,” a witch with the power to spontaneously create. Witches, traditionally, are supposed to be infertile, but Wanda is not. (This is complicated, I guess, by the fact that Harkness herself apparently has a son in comics continuity but she’s presented as married and childless here.)

Isn’t the Mind Stone placed in the middle of Vision’s forehead a little like a third eye? And isn’t death by getting that eye ripped out kind of Vision’s thing?

I know, I know, sometimes a synthezoid is just a synthezoid.

Tagged , ,

Personal time

Predictions about self-driving cars:

The average American could shift some of the 5.5 hours of television watched per day into the car, and end up with vastly more personal time once freed from the need to pay attention to the road.

Wouldn’t that person just watch another hour of TV and end up with the same amount of personal time?

Tagged ,

Thoughts on Today

As promised, I was on daytime TV this week!  The clip is available for posterity at the Today Show website.

What’s interesting to me is the big discrepancy between the way this clip looked to a lot of my friends and colleagues and the way it felt actually to participate in it.  Many of my friends were disappointed that I didn’t say more, and wished the discussion had been at a higher mathematical level.

As for me, I walked out of the shoot feeling it had been a success.

Why the difference?

For one thing, Dr. Mrs. Q and I had been watching the show to get ready, and knew what to expect.  It was pretty clear that no serious math lecture was going to happen.  There was a planned question directed at me:  “How long will it take for someone to answer this question [generalized Fermat]?”  If that had happened, I had about 10 seconds planned in which I’d say “We don’t really know, and that’s what’s exciting, most of math remains a mystery even though we teach it in a way that makes it seem everything was settled centuries ago.”  And it would have been great to have said that!  But that would have been the absolute maximum amount of math possible to work into the segment.  And once you’re on the air, things move very quickly, and things are not very tightly tied to the cue cards.

Danica McKellar, who was on with me, handled the problem of content very intelligently; she understood perfectly well that it didn’t make sense to try to really explain a Diophantine question in the context of the show, so she made sure to tell viewers that they could read about it on her twitter feed, where she provided links to a full description.  That seems to me a totally sensible approach to conveying information about math on live national TV.  The thing we do in class is a great thing to do when you have an hour to talk to 200 people.  What you do when you have 10 seconds to talk to 2 million people is totally different.

What I wanted to accomplish on the show:

  • Give some sense that there still exist math problems we don’t know how to solve;
  • Demonstrate that mathematicians are not grubby almost-dead weirdos in robes, but normal people you might see on the street (or, in Danica’s case, even on the screen.)

Both of these seem like things you can totally do in 10 seconds, and things that are worth broadcasting to 2 million people if you get the chance.  I think we were only partially successful with the first goal, but did fine with the second.

There are a lot of different channels and I think that if we want to teach as much math as possible we have to broadcast on as many channels as we can get access to.  And each channel has its own rules.  My book is going to look really different from McKellar’s books, which in turn look really different from the Today show segment, and all three, of course, are drastically different from what we do in a classroom.  But every extra channel is a chance to transmit more math, or even just the mere idea that math is still happening.  The new Museum of Math in New York.  Sitcoms and movies and cop shows with mathy characters, even when the math is distorted or outright wrong.  Nim as an immunity challenge on Survivor.  Ubiquitous Sudoku.  I endorse it all!  If I knew a good way to set up a math booth at the Gathering of the Juggalos, I would totally do it.  (I was actually thinking of David Zureick-Brown for this, if he’s interested.)

Tagged , , ,

Paul Ryan, science, money, television

From ScienceInsider’s summary of Paul Ryan’s approach to the federal spending on science:

“Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions,” Ryan said in introducing his amendment to a spending bill. CDC had spent “over $1.7 million on a ‘Hollywood liaison’ to advise TV shows like ‘E.R.’ and ‘House’ on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. … In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

“E.R” and “House” are surely seen by vastly more Americans than all federal science education programming put together.  Doesn’t $1.7m  sound pretty cheap for ensuring that the medical information coming through those giant megaphones is correct?  In Ryan’s world, what’s the mechanism under which TV producers would spend their own money doing this?  Their own goodwill?  Or will scientifically sloppy doctor shows inevitably be rejected by the wise aggregate consumer, so that the market does the job for free?

I also think it’s not fair to ask that every US-funded program be the best use of taxpayer dollars.  I mean, do we really want a federal government that consists entirely of my NSF grant?

Tagged , , , ,

Angry Birds is less popular than television

Andrew Sullivan, via Hillel Fuld, reports:

Another mind boggling statistic about Angry Birds, and you should sit down for this one, is that there are 200 million minutes played a day on a global scale. As Peter [Verterbacka, Angry Birds creator] put it, that number compares favorably to anything, including prime time TV, which indicates that 2011 will be a big year in the shift of advertisers’ attention from TV to mobile.

Americans alone watch a mean of 5 hours of television per day.  Let’s say half of that is prime time.   300 million Americans times 150 minutes is 45 billion minutes a day, and we haven’t counted any TV usage anywhere else in the world.  The popularity of Angry Birds does not “compare favorably” to the popularity of TV.

Update:   On the other hand, it’s quite reasonable to suppose that there are lots of popular TV shows that occupy fewer global person-minutes than Angry Birds does.  So the claim that advertisers should be taking the idea of advertising on mobile games, just as they do on TV shows, sounds fair to me.

Tagged , ,

She do the police in different voices

Whether Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse can be good surely depends, most of all, on whether Eliza Dushku is actor enough to convincingly portray a new character in the same body every week — or, if the arc of the show is as promised, each week a new character through which some slowly revealed constant character bleeds through, in the painful sense of the word “bleeds.”

After the first episode, I’m doubtful.  But then, the first episode — said to be a hurried compromise forced on Whedon by Fox, just as with Firefly — wasn’t very Whedonny at all.  Lots of chunky exposition, poorly delineated dramatis personae, quickly revealed and as quickly resolved “dark secrets.”  Very little snap, with the exception of a fine tough-cop men’s room scene that would win this year’s Best Men’s Room Scene Emmy if not for Madison rocker Shirley Manson’s star turn as a homicidal urinal — really! — on Sarah Connor Chronicles.

I can’t lie; I trust Joss.  I will watch.

Tagged , , , ,

One cheer for Numb3rs

An anonymous commenter denounced me — in a very thoughtful and civil way! — for working on the CBS show Numb3rs:

The show gets it wrong. Worse than having an opportunity and not doing anything with it is having an opportunity and doing damage with it. Math problems are not solved in minutes! Certainly an hour of a guy doing scratch work wouldn’t make good TV, but the show could be true to the fact that mathematics takes hours/days/months without boring the viewer — but it doesn’t even try.

The accusation of unrealism is perfectly correct. On Numb3rs, Charlie solves math problems lickety-split; and if he makes a false step, it’s rectified well before we get down to the car-chase-and-shootout portion of the episode. In real life, math problems take a long time to solve. But you know what? In real life, serial killers take a long time to catch! And in real life, when the cops are in a gun battle with bad guys, the bad guys sometimes don’t miss! And in real life, when you spin your car out, sometimes you crash!

And so on, and so on. Numb3rs is a cop show. As such, it’s bound to very stringent genre conventions, and one of those conventions is speed. If you want to break those conventions and remain on TV, I think you need either a fanatically loyal fanbase, truly brilliant writers, or a home on a network unpopular enough that low ratings don’t matter so much — in fact, my only example of an action show that successfully “worked slow” is season 7 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which had all three.

I had always conjectured that the writers of Numb3rs just sprinkled the dialog with random permutations of words from math book indices.

Not so far off, except that Wikipedia is preferred. The people who write the show are professional TV writers, not mathematicians, so the math content in the draft scripts is often a bit “kinda sorta.” I was one of four or five math consultants to the show in season 2; our role was to tweak the “mathy” sections to bring them into line with the overall plot of the episode. But not to mess around with the plot, which comes first. One doesn’t sense that stories are generated by a writer musing, “Hey, we should build an episode around the cohomology of flag varieties; what crime would that solve?”

Poorly crafted analogies are everywhere, and results are always attributed to a mindblowing theory we’re told about but never see… I don’t learning anything about math or logic with numb3rs. Certainly the subject matter is a bit more dense, but it could be done. As examples, I could see an episode that fully taught an induction proof or presented the complete proof of the solvability of chess. That would have people talking at the water cooler the next day!

Yeah, it might sound something like: “Hey, I cleaned my whole basement last night in the hour of free time I used to spend watching Numb3rs!

Actually, I think both of my commenter’s suggestions, presented correctly, would indeed make excellent pegs for an episode of the show. The commenter is right that, at times, the show relies too much on big words and gee-whiz. But just as often it presents a real mathematical idea in a vivid way.

As in the premiere, when the cops stare baffled at the pushpin map of the serial killer’s killing spots. As far as they can see, it’s completely random; pushpins distributed evenly all over LA. The mathematician observes: randomly chosen locations don’t form a nice even-looking distribution. The absence of clumps suggests that the killer is intentionally choosing new victims far away from his previous ones. Is there a five-minute lecture on the topic? No; but a viewer should certainly come away having learned a non-obvious piece of mathematics.

But all this is, to me, beside the point. Numb3rs does offer us an opportunity, as my commenter says; but not the opportunity to teach mathematics to a mass audience, a task for which I think a cop show is spectacularly poorly suited. The opportunity presented is the chance to battle a popular story about mathematics — that it’s a chore, that it’s for nerds, that it’s never used in “the real world” — and thereby to bring new students into mathematics courses who otherwise might not have considered them. Nine out of ten may leave disappointed when they find out we don’t actually fight crime. But one out of ten will see what mathematics is really like and think it’s great, and they’ll stay. And we’ll have CBS to thank!

Tagged , ,

At least it’s not Royals-Reds

This year’s baseball postseason has to be counted as disastrous if you’re in the television industry. First of all, three of the four divisional series were finished in the minimum three games, with one going four. The NLCS went the minimum four games, and the Indians now lead the Red Sox 3 games to 1. That means that if Cleveland wins tomorrow, the total number of games in all six playoff series so far will be just 2 over the minimum.

But it gets worse: the team from the smaller TV market has won all five completed playoff series.  Using the 2004 table of top television markets here (scroll down) we have Cleveland (16) over New York (1), Boston (5) over Los Angeles (2), Phoenix (14) over Chicago (3), and Denver (18) over Philadelphia (4). Then the Rockies cruised by the Diamondbacks, and if the Indians can manage one more win from their two aces, we’ll see a World Series between the two smallest markets in the playoffs.

Tagged , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: