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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Nine: Grossberg's Return

Episode Name: Grossberg's Return

Premise: Ned Grossberg, former Network 23 chairman, resurfaces at rival Network 66 and rolls out a plan to take the ratings lead away from Network 23.

Theme explored: This is the first episode that focused less on a specific theme and more on setting up the overarching storyline for the season -- that Grossberg, ousted from Network 23 after the revelation that his Blipverts had lethal side effects, was now with Network 66 and plotting to become its chairman and launch a rivalry with Network 23.

But the themes remain evident, surrounding how the media can be utilized to play political games. It starts with Grossberg using a device called View Doze, which counters viewership of people who leave the TV one while sleeping, in an attempt to win an election for Harriet Garth (in this world, elections for leadership positions are won based on the ratings garnered by the network, which backs a chose candidate). This prompts Network 23 to launch an investigation into the practice.

It takes a different turn, though, when a freelancer working for Network 23 -- who is really working covertly for Grossberg -- reveals footage of Garth apparently having an intimate affair with a Network 66 reporter. Cheviette, the chairman of Network 23, pushes Edison Carter to pursue the story, mostly because of Cheviette's desire to win the election. All the while, Grossberg is manipulating both Network 23 and Network 66 in a move to claim the chairmanship of Network 66 for himself.

The media's effect on elections is discussed a lot in light of the 2016 Presidential election, but this Max Headroom episode takes it a step further, in which networks themselves are backing political candidates. Nonetheless, the debate over how the media should cover elections and political candidates is relevant to our society today.

Max Headroom quotes:
"Ratings! Audiences! You're playing my tune!"
"I'll never understand why people always use so much energy over the idea of getting excited about the very thing they'll need energy for once the excitement is over."
"You should leave it to me next time -- leave it to someone who understands show business."

Personal thoughts: This was the first episode in which the writers focused on continuity from previous episodes and set the stage for what was intended to be the overarching conflict of the season. Though the series was cancelled a few episodes later, you could tell that the writers knew that the table had been set and now was the time to move forward with episodic storytelling. Even so, this episode stands well on its own for its underlying theme.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Principle's Not The Problem, The Method Is

As I sat down to review Max Headroom episodes, one line from Edison Carter keeps popping into my mind: "I agree with the principle, but the method stinks."

Carter's line is directed at Blank Reg, one of a number of people who, in the futuristic world of Max Headroom, disagree with the decision to have everyone's personal information kept in computer databases and have all such information erased. Reg is working on behalf of fellow Blanks who seek to sabotage the networks because other Blanks are being detained by police without charge, at the behest of a government leader who doesn't like that Blanks had their personal info erased.

Certainly the idea of detaining a person without charge simply because the person disagrees with a government's directive is problematic, but the decision to sabotage something in response brings problems of its own. And though Carter is symapehtic toward Reg and his fellow Blanks, he believes there has to be a better way to get the point across.

Which brings me to the latest in debates surrounding young adult novels, this one concerning American Heart, a novel written by Laura Moriarty and set to be released in January. The novel's premise is that Muslim Americans are forced into concentration camps and the protagonist, a white teenage girl, encounters a Muslim professor and, while originally not concerned about the plight of Muslims, decides to help this professor escape to Canada.

Kirkus Reviews published a starred review by a reviewer who, while not identified by name, was identified as Muslim. That was followed by a number of individuals who wrote scathing remarks about the book and Kirkus, in a rare move, changed the review and took away the star.

There are two reviewers who aren't connected with Kirkus who both note the attempt by Moriarty to write a homage to Huckleberry Finn. Cathy Day believes people should read the book because she thinks the portrayal of American Heart's main character should get people to reconsider their own casual prejudices. Justina Ireland, though, is more critical of the book -- her praise for Huckleberry Finn is similar to Day's (and both note important flaws in Huckleberry Finn), but Ireland finds the portrayal of American Heart's main character problematic, along with the portrayal of the Muslim characters and others along the way, plus the way the story unfolds.

Though Ireland makes her dislike for the book known, she does it in a thought-provoking manner, detailing why she doesn't care for the characters and why she finds the storyline flawed.

But reviews such as Ireland's are not what appear to have prompted Kirkus to change its own review. Instead, Kirkus is reacting to online backlash by people who haven't read the book, but either read the blurb or read reviews by others who wrote the book and leave scathing remarks on Goodreads, as if they are solely interested in sabotaging the book, the author and the publisher rather than engaging in an open, honest discussion such as about points Ireland raised and what could have been done to make the book better.

And while I agree with the principle that writers shouldn't fall into lazy tropes and stereotypes regarding people of different races, ethnicities or religions, the method of bashing and insulting the author stinks.

Such bashing and insulting doesn't serve any means to advance discussion and get writers to learn about what to do better next time. It only serves to convince writers they shouldn't bother trying to explore certain themes, ideas or characters -- or even to write future novels at all. More importantly, the bashing and insulting diminishes what Ireland set out to do -- get writers to do a better job with such character portrayals. Because when bashing and insulting takes place, that gets all the attention, when attention may be better focused on reviews such as Ireland's.

And when the attention only focuses on the bashing and insulting, people who might be open to reconsidering their views are more likely to be convinced there is no reason to do so. Nobody, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or other factors likes to be bashed and insulted, so how can anyone think such bashing and insulting is going to cause people to change their minds?

While I understand the need to get writers of all types represented, I have previously written that it's difficult for new writers to break in with publishers for several reasons -- one of them being that major publishers tend to fall back on writers who have had successful works rather than giving new writers a chance. Increasing representation for all types of authors is good, but when major publishers would rather rely on established authors before new authors, groups that are underrepresented remain that way. And I agree that it's a good idea to get characters of all types represented in novels, and that such portrayals shouldn't just fall into stereotypes. But that means that writers of all backgrounds are going to have write about characters of all backgrounds, whether the character's background matches the writer's background or not.

And considering that it's white Americans who may need the most educating about what casual prejudice is all about, I believe it's important to have novels in which a white protagonist is forced to confront casual prejudice. One is free to argue with how such a concept is executed and one is right to point out that the writer must do plenty of work to ensure an accurate portrayal of non-white characters. But arguing the attempt shouldn't be explored is problematic. Yet that's the message sent by those who bash and insult, and is hammered home by Kirkus changing its review.

It's easy for writers to fall into the trap of keeping their protagonists as ones who fit the writer's beliefs and experiences. That's not to say the writer should never create protagonists who share the writer's beliefs -- such exercises can be useful. But the real challenge for a writer is to write a protagonist that the writer doesn't agree with and, in some cases, may not be likable. And when such attempts are made, those who review the books should focus on whether or not the execution worked, even if the reviewer may not be a fan of the premise. That's how writers learn to get better at their craft.

But if certain individuals spend more of their time bashing and insulting than offering critical analysis, it's only going to cause writers to stay in their comfort zones rather than explore new territory. And it defeats the purpose of what those offering critical analysis are trying to explain to writers who venture into new territory.

To paraphrase Edison Carter: It's not the principle that is the problem, but the method is certainly a problem.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Eight: Deities

Episode Name: Deities

Premise: Edison Carter is tasked to investigate the View Age Church, which promises technology to resurrect loved ones, that happens to be overseen by Carter's old flame.

Theme explored: On the surface, it's televangelism -- the View Age Church is like many televangelists when considering the promise of salvation if you'll just give money. A deeper theme explored, though, is the question "what is truth?" That's the challenge that Vanna Smith, the head of the View Age Church and a former love interest of Carter's, poses to Carter itself when she points out that she promises her church members something and they have found peace, while what Carter seeks out doesn't always bring peace, even if the evidence shows he's right.

There's also the question about how relationships can present conflict of interest when it comes to our jobs. Carter had a past relationship with Smith -- at first, he's reluctant to pursue the story, but once he learns more details, he becomes almost vindicative in his pursuit of the story. Carter tries to make peace with Smith, but in doing so, violates one of his rules that he will not allow a source to see his story before it airs. And then comes a confrontation with Ashwell, a member of Network 23's board of directors, who happens to be a member of the View Age Church and points out that Carter's past stories have often cost Network 23 sponsors and shows, thus hurting the network's bottom line.

Though the themes don't necessarily tie into what one would find in a dystopian environment, they are themes that hold relevance in society, especially when it comes to the question of what seeking the truth is all about.

Max Headroom quotes:
"God may have taken only seven days to create the universe, but the running repairs go on forever."
"One of my commandments is thou shalt not squeal."
"And God created the fish that swims in the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that walk among the earth and then... he created Vanna Smith."
"What do I need a new body for? I never had an old one."

Personal observations: Again, this episode focused less on the consequences of a dystopian environment and more on asking the question about what truth really is. It does a good job building to the moment in which Max Headroom himself proves to be the mediator in the conflict between Carter and Smith, all while staying true to his personality.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Seven: The Academy

Episode Name: The Academy

Premise: Blank Reg is accused of zipping (hacking) Network 23's transmissions, but the real culprits are students at the network's Academy of Computer Sciences, for whom Bryce is covering up.

Theme explored: Logic versus emotion. Bryce, in his attempts to cover up for the academy students, uses logic to determine that there is no harm in diverting attention to an innocent person because the evidence will show the person is innocent. However, Blank Reg is different because, given that he chose to wipe out his entire record, the networks use a "criminal profile" to determine the likelihood that he may have committed the crime -- a profile also based in logic. Or in other terms, a computer algorithm determines the likelihood of guilt.

It raises the question about the usage of computer alogrithms to come to conclusions. We have seen this become an issue in how posts are removed from social media accounts, or said accounts are suspended, based on what an algorithm determines, rather than an actual person examining the post or account to determine what is really being posted. And given the nature in which the academy teaches its students, in which they are taught to think in terms of logic rather than emotion, how that may not be a good thing when some situations may require a determination of "right or wrong" that is based more on emotion than logic.

Also critiqued was the trend at the time of broadcasting court cases for entertainment purposes (The People's Court was in syndication at the time this episode was taped). The critique comes in Blank Reg's trial, which is broadcast on the Network 23 show "You The Jury," in which the prosecutor and judge behave more like game show personalities and everything is treated as an event. It begs the question about how far you go in taking legal cases and broadcasting them for entertainment purposes rather than informational.

Max Headroom quotes:
"I happen to be living above the mainframe and just watched the show."
"As they said to King Charles I on the scaffold, are you going to go quietly or do you need a push?"
"Me smirk? It's not in my program."

Personal observations: This was one of the better episodes of the series. The writers were hitting their stride by this point, exploring a main theme that wasn't solely about critiquing television but finding a way to fit a critique of the media into the show. And in our debates today, there's always the struggle between using logic (data, algorithms, etc.) versus emotion (feelings, conscience, etc.) to determine what is the best solution to a problem.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Six: The Blanks

Episode name: The Blanks

Premise: A group of Blanks (individuals who have wiped out their personal information from all databases) threatens to take down all computer systems unless Blanks who have been detained without cause be released by the government.

Theme explored: The episode focuses on Simon Pellar, an elected official who doesn't agree with those who choose to remove all identifying information from technological systems and seeks to have them arrested simply for choosing to be a Blank. Meanwhile, Blank Reg -- who runs his own Big Time Television network -- wants to reach a wider audience and agrees to work with Blank Bruno to sabotage all other network systems. But Reg has second thoughts when Edison Carter confronts him about it, but promises that he will talk to Bruno and find a way to get Pellar to release the Blanks who have been detained.

The theme is summed up by Edison's remark to Reg: "I believe in the principle but the method stinks." In other words, it's questioning what methods are appropriate to further principles that people hold. Pellar represents the government's side of things (wiping out your personal info from databases should be a criminal act) while the Blanks represent an example of what may be an individual or group's perspective (we don't want that personal info kept and want to live as we choose because we aren't hurting anyone). But in the end, each side uses a questionable method.

And those questionable methods certainly hold relevance in today's society. Pellar has Blanks arrested and detained after a tainted judicial procedure, which is easily comparable to the idea of holding a person accused of a crime without a speedy trial. Meanwhile, the method employed by the Blanks to achieve their ends would be described in today's world as "cyberterrorism." And the question to ask when these viewpoints come into conflict is this: Who should really prevail?

Max Headroom quotes:
"You want me to pretend to be a horse? I saddle up for no man!"
"I'll let you know if there's life after the off switch."
"What are you laughing about? Brice just tried to kiss me!"

Personal observations: I didn't find this to be as good of an episode as the others so far in the series, but the theme remains relevant today. The question we should always ask is the same thing Edison asks of Reg: While we may have certain principles we believe in, we should think carefully about the methods we utilize to advance them.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Five: War

Episode Name: War

Premise: Network 23 investigates how a lesser rival network seems to always be on the scene of terrorist attacks during a global ratings sweep.

Theme explored: Media access is the issue at hand here. Breakthru TV, a less influential network, obtains exclusive rights to story packages involving the White Brigade, a terrorist organization railing against the heavy influence of television networks. But it's revealed that White Brigade and Breakthru TV are actually working together, with Breakthru TV's CEO hoping to get Network 23 to purchase the rights to the story packages. It escalates to the point that the Brigade unleashes an attack on the "ad market," this world's version of the stock market, in an attempt to discredit Edison Carter revealing the White Brigade's intentions in staging its attacks.

Though the theme of media access is taken to an extreme in this episode, there are questions that must be asked about how important access is. Is it worth it to give favorable coverage of a government agency in order to maintain access to it? Or the same involving a corporation? Or a non profit agency? Or a political organization? At what price does the quest for ratings (or whatever factor is used to measure audiences) must be questioned when those the media has access to engage in questionable behavior?

Max Headroom quotes:
"If I could get a hold of Breakthru TV, I wouldn't touch them with a bent TV antenna."
"The rigors of investigating, so tiring."
"For those cold mornings, why not try Chrenobyl Pops? They'll give you that warm glow all over."
"If they think I am endorsing car accessories, they've got another dipstick coming!"

Personal observations: Media today would be well advised to ponder the question about the importance of an audience above all else, especially if it means only favorable coverage may be given of any entity in exchange for access to those with the entity.

There's also an interesting exchange in which Edison Carter asks, "Since when did news become entertainment?" and Murray replies "since it was invented." Today's media environment arguably is the perfect example of "news equals entertainment" and it's something everyone should think about when it comes to the news they consume. And when it comes to media access, it often means the media further perpetuates the idea that news should be entertainment, lest its access be lost.