August Mailbag: Animation, Cancellation, and More

Mailbag

How does a cartoon or an anime differ from the TV structure of prestige comedy and drama? – Violet M.

I love this question. We can all sense that animation is different from its live-action counterpart, even if we’re not sure why. On some shows, particularly comedies, it’s really straightforward. There are talking animals and fish in Bojack Horseman and Spongebob Squarepants, which is something that just looks a little weird with real animals (unless it’s a Jack Russell Terrier named Wishbone who takes us galavanting through English Literature).

But there are some fundamental pros and cons to telling a story through animation rather than with human beings. For example, live actors tend to be a bit more relatable and their faces will always be more detailed than one that’s drawn. As fellow human beings, we are naturally more able to read and empathize with these faces, which is why it gets so creepy when we start to approach the uncanny valley, as seen in this uncomfortable exchange between humanity’s best yet attempt at human likeness and a robot named Sofia.

On the other end, animation can provide so much more room to play on the margins precisely because we don’t expect it to be realistic. While making animated characters into caricatures can hurt our ability to read the nuance of emotion on their faces, that exaggeration can also swing the other way. Characters can be elongated and exaggerated in ways that immediately tell us who they are and animation can use that artistic license to bring us more into character’s mind than live-action ever could.

But more to the crux of this question, I’ve found that the majority of differences in structure have come down to editing. Maybe that’s just because I’m an editor at heart, but having a world constructed completely from scratch lets animators explore that world in a much more experimental way. One of my favorite anime shows, Code Geass, would often use its transitions between scenes to introduce new information, characters, and build its world. It’s not that those results are impossible in live-action (Jean Marc Vallee does it well in Big Little Lies and now Sharp Objects), but animation can do it much more efficiently. We wouldn’t meet these characters for episodes — and sometimes seasons — to come, but we would already be associating them with specific events and images through their positioning in these cuts.

Because it is totally natural to be ready for less visual information and detail in a drawing than a photograph cuts can be shorter than in live-action. Scenes can transition seamlessly using any manner of wipes, match cuts, or straight up drawing a scene to become another one. Where those kinds of actions would take a high budget for CGI or set production to change a setting around a scene or character, there’s no real extra cost for animation. Ultimately, the same constraints that can hold animation back in terms of its lack of realism can also push its story to the next level.

 

Why do good shows fail to get an audience and get cancelled too early? – Connor S.

Everyone has fallen in love with a show only for it to get cancelled while it was still on the way up. You can literally search “shows that got cancelled too soon” and Google will assemble its own list for you. Today, thanks to streaming services, more and more of those shows are finding a second life, and new fans are often find themselves shocked that Freaks and Geeks only has 18 episodes or that Firefly has 14 episodes but a feature film.

Historically, poor ratings are the culprit. The reasons behind those ratings are much more varied. Firefly was cancelled after Fox botched its release and confused viewers, airing its second episode before its pilot and launching it in the dreaded Friday Night Death Slot. Arrested Development never received high enough ratings and was cancelled after three seasons despite its critical acclaim and five Emmy awards.

While we all turn to TV to have fun, it’s important to remember that it is a gigantic business that makes money off of attracting eyeballs. On cable, if a show isn’t bringing in viewers, its time is going to go to a different project that can get more people to watch commercials. Advertisers pay good money for their spots in between act breaks, and like it or not, they’re the ones who make TV entertainment possible.

That being said, pure ratings aren’t as important as they used to be. Netflix and HBO don’t have advertisers at all, existing on a completely different subscription model. There, you pay to join their platform so their business model is all about drawing new customers to their service. If their lineup of shows isn’t bringing in fresh blood, it can be difficult to justify paying for it. But that doesn’t mean that Netflix is about raw numbers of viewers. More than ever, Netflix is looking to carve out the intersections between different niche audiences that are passionate about their shows.

It might seem like I’m harping too much on one company in Netflix, but the truth is that everyone is trying to mimic their success. They’re on a meteoric rise and even though they’re bleeding cash like nobody’s business, their stock keeps rising. And upward trend of valuing quality over quantity is a long time in the making. In the mid-2000s, DVD sales resurrected Family Guy and added to other shows devoted fan bases like Lost. Merchandising is another area of cashflow that sci-fi and fantasy shows have enjoyed for years (Doctor Who for example) and you better believe that Netflix is pumped about getting a piece of that pie with Stranger Things.

The point is that the landscape of TV is changing. A show like The Expanse can have terrible numbers and get cancelled by SyFy, generate an online push that proves how passionate its fan base is, and get picked up by Amazon, who is sure to get some extra subscribers from this acquisition. With the market as saturated as it is, retention is a key asset that is sure to be of value. Will good shows still get cancelled? Of course. But the changing economy of it all looks like companies are more willing to listen to fans over advertisers. Speaking of The Expanse…

 

Why won’t you watch The Expanse? – Erin C.

I’ve gotten tons of requests to watch The Expanse in the comments sections of my videos and my dad even dared to tell me that it’s easily a better show than Battlestar Galactica. At first I was holding off because I thought that the show might get cancelled (I was right) but that excuse is gone now that Amazon has picked it up for a 4th season. So why am I still dragging my feet?

Call it fatigue. At the moment, I’m watching shows Sharp Objects, Succession, Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, Mad Men, and The Wire. And in the last month, I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, GLOW, and Westworld. Next week, I’ll be adding Better Call Saul as Cloak and Dagger finishes this week. Here’s the breakdown of those shows: 3 are currently airing their first season (Sharp Objects, Succession, Cloak and Dagger), 3 just finished their second season (The Handmaid’s Tale, GLOW, Westworld of which I watched seasons 1 and 2 as they aired), and the other two are giants of TV history (Mad Men and The Wire). The other show is Better Call Saul which I have also watched since it aired but will be entering its fourth season this year.

Basically, the only shows I’m digging into the past on are Mad Men and The Wire, shows that basically changed the landscape of television as we know it. With so much other good TV popping up all the time, it’s so hard to play catch up once you fall behind, and with 30 hours of The Expanse to watch before I’m up-to-date, that’s a tough sell.

The reason I bring this up is not to say that The Expanse isn’t worth it, I’m actually pretty confident that it is. Although I didn’t really care for the pilot, it’s not fair to judge a show for its first episode, especially when its premise is as ambitious as The Expanse. What I am saying is that even though it might be a really good show, there are already so many other shows that are also worthy of being watched that require so much less investment. I run into this problem whenever I recommend a show that has so much weight behind it. As amazing as The Americans is, there aren’t a ton of people who have 6 seasons worth of time to devote to it if that means falling behind on another show that people they know are talking about.

I’m pretty sure that I will get to The Expanse, and I’d love to have a take on it by the time its fourth season rolls around, but it’s kind of like trying to hype yourself up to do a tough gym workout when it would be so much easier to take it easy. I know it’ll be good for me, but do I have to?

 

Which characters would still be successful in a different TV show universe? – Christopher J.

So many great ones to choose from. Here are five of my favorites:

  • Gus Fring (Breaking Bad) taking over The Wire’s West Baltimore with an even better business savvy than Stringer Bell and being better able to deal with gunmen like Omar seeing as he handled two utterly psychopathic Salamancas
  • Michael Scott (The Office) as a lower tier employee of Arrested Development’s Bluth Company since it seems just as incompetent as Dunder Mifflin.
  • Fred and Serena Waterford (The Handmaid’s Tale) thriving in Mad Men’s sexist work culture, manipulating the minds of the masses through advertisements instead of propaganda
  • Seeing the clash of the ever-depressed George Constanza and the happy-go-lucky Cheers crowd would be a sight and I’d love to see how his observations about the mundane would go over Coach and Woody’s heads.
  • Buffy Summers would do very well on The X-Files, probably better than Mulder and Scully since she already knows everything there is to know about everything they’d find.

Send any questions you’d like addressed in the next mailbag or comments on this one to bumtugglies@gmail.com or tweet me at @jackapn2

 

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