‘Colony’ Has A Genius Plot Device: Keeping The Aliens Out Of Sight

The more I’ve become addicted to Colony, the more I realize it’s difficult to characterize, deftly transcending genres. That’s what makes it so consistently interesting but, I imagine, hard to market. (Add my signature to the “renew for Season 4,” petition — this story is far from over.)

Colony isn’t exactly sci-fi, but it’s not your typical drama either. You’ve got many things happening at once: several layers of political conflict, social unease (if not exactly unrest), neighbourly distrust, and at the core an entire family whose bonds are fraying in subtle but perhaps irreparable ways.

Watching the latest episode, “Lazarus,” I realized the main reason this all works is because, although the show sheds locations at a rapid rate and has run through a laundry list of minor characters, it feels cohesive. It’s not just cohesive, it’s compelling — because there are many mysteries at the heart of Colony, and there’s an authenticity to the storytelling that makes you feel like if you keep watching, you won’t be duped by a flashy miscue or dramatic twist that’s ultimately unsatisfying.

How does Colony do this, apart from clearly caring about the story and the characters inside of it? From the premiere episode all the way up until Season 3, they have kept the aliens almost completely out of sight. The alien invasion is not the story; the story is far more grounded in the human world. It’s about how people react to their new circumstances, when no one knows the full truth of what’s going on.

Ultimately, all of the human race is the living under one undeniable fact: they have nowhere to go. They can perhaps move from community to community — like the Bowmans escaped Los Angeles to make way to Seattle — but they have no way to leave the planet. Their oppressors have taken over all of earth, so each character has to make choices about how to live under an environment of limited freedoms, where simply dropping out or finding a democratic regime is impossible. The aliens are in complete control, or that’s what everyone believes; so for human beings, there is no way out.

Watching “Lazarus,” I had the same stray thought I’ve had before: why does Broussard keep going with his revolutionary ways, when he’s basically just one person — Amy and the Bowmans notwithstanding — and he is up against this all-encompassing, totalitarian regime that he cannot single-handedly overthrow?

The answer: because that is his life journey in this bubble where there’s no clear exit. He could never be successful in his mission, but conformity isn’t an option either. Broussard is choosing to fight, because in a way it’s his coping mechanism.

Will Bowman’s coping mechanism? Serious depression, withdrawal from his family, drink and sometimes P.I. work. Bram Bowman? Playing the game for awhile, with somewhat open eyes, while quietly plotting to create a better life for his sister (and himself) as his parents move further and further away, intellectually and emotionally. Katie Bowman? Trying to make things better by processing refugees and getting to know them, expressing kindness and care, one-on-one. This is the “if I can save one, it was all worth it” philosophy of service work.

Katie obviously believes she’s helping, and that’s enough for her, at least at first. Once she realizes she’s not actually improving the situation of refugee families — if anything, she’s condemning them to a much worse fate — she’s forced to make a choice. But more on that in a minute.

If Colony did not have the alien element, there would be a simple out for all of these characters: go away. That would be the goal. Since that’s not possible, we’re forced to watch them try to function, after everything they knew and relied upon in their society has been stripped away with no apparent route for returning to the old structure.

Herein lies the genius of Colony: not focusing on the aliens. I’ll have to admit, in Season 1, this was a bit of a disappointment to me. I kept watching, wanting to know what the aliens looked like, what they wanted, and what The Factory was all about. Now, I’ll admit that is far less interesting than a show that is based on a fantastical event — an alien invasion — while still firmly grounded in the human world.

That was never more effective than in “Lazarus,” when Katie covertly accompanies a group of refugees on Bus D. She thought they were to be resettled in Seattle, but once on board, they are told they are going to enjoy “new opportunities” in Portland. Upon arrival, Katie hangs back as streams of refugees slowly enter isolated barracks.

It’s chilling. Watching that scene gave me a knot in my stomach, even though I know it’s fiction — but there’s enough of a historical parallel to fill you with dread.

If we knew too much about the aliens, it would be easy to write off Colony as a fantasy series, with perhaps underlying political themes. But because it is firmly grounded in the world we know and we witness, it’s infinitely more powerful.

Coupled with that is the ever-deepening mystery of who exactly is in charge. One of the more interesting reveals with the introduction of the Wayne Brady character is that The Hosts are not necessarily behind every decision made by the IGA. The IGA has its own political agenda, because after all, the IGA is just people — trying to function in this human world where there is no way out.

 

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This Is Us: Pilot (S 1 E 1)

Great Episodes is a series of blogs on my all-time favorite episodes of, well, everything. 

It’s tough to recall now that, when This Is Us premiered, no one knew the story of the Pearson family. The show was billed as a non-specific examination of people who happened to have the same birthday. The show’s pilot made good on this promise, following four (seemingly) separate storylines: a woman living with weight issues, an actor experiencing career disillusion, a man searching for his birth father, and a woman at the end of a high-risk pregnancy, accompanied by her attractive and adoring husband.

We find out early on that two of these people are siblings, sharing a 36th birthday, but it’s not until the very end that we discover the entire group is one interconnected family. The delivery storyline is a flashback to when two of the “Big Three” were born and the last, spontaneously adopted after their mother loses one of her triplets. (“Loses” feels like a challenging word here, as the child did not survive the pregnancy.)

The unexpected reveal has a big emotional payoff, and that alone is what set This Is Us up to be such a compelling drama. From the beginning, each character has a rich backstory, complicated emotional challenges, and potentially decades of stories to be told. Anyone who kept watching after the pilot was in for a drama that, although not always as impactful as the first episode, was often meaningful, thoughtful and sensitive in a way that family television dramas rarely are.

But the pilot episode of This Is Us isn’t without its drawbacks. We’re introduced to the core Pearson gang, but we’re also given Toby, Kate’s controlling and irritating boyfriend. That is not to diminish the actor that plays him: my belief is that Toby has only gotten away with being such a pushy and unlikeable person because of the inherent likeability of Chris Sullivan. My personal hope is that Season 3 of This Is Us will give Kate her own sense of self-worth, that doesn’t rely on having a man take interest in her. At the very least, I’d like to see her in a healthy relationship, where her partner does not feign support by telling her she’s wrong about every opinion or feeling she ever has, especially when it comes to her weight.

This is something that the pilot shows us, in a way, with her palpable emotional connection with her brother. Kate asks Kevin to tell her to lose the weight, and he can’t, or won’t, do it. Toby, on the other hand, has no problem stepping all over her emotional life. That’s not as obvious until later, but we see the early roots of that manipulation from their first encounter at an OA meeting in the pilot.

There is also the grating first scene, where Jack — who, over time on This Is Us becomes a model example of how people can cause hurt with their personal demons but are also capable of great love and self-awareness — wants to get romantic with his heavily-pregnant wife. It’s supposed to be cute, and it is — but before her water breaks, ending the encounter, you kind of just want him to leave her alone and let her sleep. But that’s a minor criticism.

While I’ll put the pilot on my list of “greatest episodes,” it doesn’t contain what is, by far, may favourite scene in This Is Us. That would be the therapy scene from deep in Season 2, where it’s revealed no one in the Pearson family really wants to talk about their demons except Kevin, and no one really has the same perspective on what their upbringing was really like. That scene is posted below.

‘Westworld,’ Tell Me Who The Heroes Are

As much as “Vanishing Point” (S 2 E 9) may have finally answered some questions, it opened others, and left me with this profound sense that I have no one to root for. Bernard, I suppose. But I don’t know who’s the hero in this story, and there aren’t even any dark knights whose victories you can secretly enjoy.

But let’s not forget, Charlotte Hale put code in the host network to kill them all. We weren’t told how that would play out, but it could easily have been in Bernard deleting his Ford code, taking control of his fellow AIs and having Teddy end his own life. I’m not sure, and I’m still trying to find a reason to care.

Westworld has a very dark view of humanity. That darkness is not just in people, but the humanoid robots they create out of human consciousness. I don’t know what the message is here, except that humans are very bad, and there isn’t much to redeem them.

Unless that’s the truth of humanity inside the park — but maybe not outside, where life could be idyllic or at least more complex in its range of human emotions and experiences. That’s why it was compelling, for about 30 seconds, in “Vanishing Point,” when we saw William and Emily’s home life in flashback.

Turns out the story outside the park — that I was so anxious to see — isn’t that deep or compelling after all. Basically, William is a bad guy. Made everyone miserable. His wife couldn’t handle it. He felt guilty. Came into the park, where he’d become obsessed with the characters and storylines.

Which comes to the question of whether William is, or is not, a host. I’m not sure it matters, because by this stage the lines between the humans and the AI have become blurred. Maybe that’s the point.

As for Charlotte’s program to eliminate the hosts, let’s think back to Star Trek: TNG (S 5 E 23, “I, Borg”), when they saved an individual Borg and planned to use him to infect the entire collective with an algorithm that would result in their self-destruction. At the end of that plotline, they decided that to use one Borg that way would be unethical. But they went on to reason that the experiences of independence the one Borg had had while detached from the collective would do the same kind of work. When the one Borg, Hugh, went back home, he’d bring a new sense of identity with him. Eventually, the entire Borg would be infected by that identity, and thus understand the concept of “I.”

Let’s hope the minds behind Westworld are planning something equally as interesting for the finale as that classic bit from TNG.

Abramovitz v. Lee Proves The Law Isn’t About Justice: It’s About Keeping People In Their Place

Eric Abramovitz is a successful clarinetist, who was a music student at McGill when he met Jennifer Lee, his soon-to-be girlfriend. This week, about five years after they first started a relationship and a couple of years after it ended, an Ontario judge ordered Lee to pay Abramovitz CDN$375,000 (USD$284,000).

Her infraction? Intercepting an email from a university professor saying Abramovitz had won a prestigious scholarship. She deleted that email, created a Gmail account and used to it create a fake email from the professor, telling her then live-in boyfriend that he was offered a spot at the school, but with virtually no financial backing.

She’d sent an email to the school as well, in the name of Abramovitz, turning down the real offer.

Despicable, to be sure. But $375,000? Let’s be clear about a few things here.

  • Abramovitz finished his education at McGill. As the judgment states, he was already well-known as a prodigy, having won several competitions and been a featured soloist in orchestras.
  • After his schooling, Abramovitz was able to secure an orchestra position without difficulty. In other words, he was able to continue with his art. He was not forced to get a new job or enter another industry. His career was far from ruined.
  • When he received the fake “rejection” email, he didn’t question it. This was in 2014, and it was sent from a Gmail address. As a second-year student at McGill he should have expected a university address, ending with .edu, sent from the instititution. For such a high-value scholarship (full ride tuition plus room and board), it seems highly unlikely he would learn his fate over Gmail, right? Why did the judge not hold him accountable for his own stupidity?
  • If he wanted the scholarship so badly, why did he not contact the professor in question, Yehuda Gilad, and ask why he’d fallen short? Presumably, Abramovitz still wanted a clarinetist career. Why did he not reach out to Gilad, with whom he’d had an invitation-only, in-person audition during the application process for this scholarship, to ask for mentorship advice and guidance?
  • Lee did not deny Abramovitz the scholarship. She made him think he’d been rejected. She took nothing away from him in actual fact. It was always within his power to contact the school and get more details about his status. Even though she’d sent the email saying Abramovitz was turning down the scholarship, presumably the school would have made good on the original offer once the deception came to light.

Here’s what the judge had to say:

“Mr Abramovitz was completely taken in by this deception.  He believed that he had failed to win a place at Coburn.  He did not have the financial resources to attend USC on the basis offered and so declined that offer (by response to the fake email address in Mr Gelad’s name).  As a consequence, Mr Abramovitz lost the two year full-scholarship opportunity to study with Mr Gelad.  He stayed in Montreal and completed his music degree at McGill.”

In other words, the judge in no way placed responsibility on Abramovitz for his failure to perform due diligence.

Let’s do a thought experiment, shall we? Let’s presume the musician was female. Let’s say her jealous, possessive live-in partner was male. Would the judge have been so quick to ignore her failure to push back against the rejection? I think not. I suspect, if she would have received a judgment at all, it would have been for nominal damages, for his bad conduct and nothing more.

In calculating damages, Justice D.L. Corbett undertook the usual math in these cases. Except Corbett relied on some pretty hefty assumptions. Taking the word of Professor Gilad, he agreed that Abramovitz would have accepted and finished the USC program if he’d known of his acceptance. As a result, he would have earned a higher salary at a more well-known orchestra than what he ended up making at an orchestra in Nashville. He granted the CAD$300,000 Abramovitz was seeking, not only for the loss of income but loss of educational opportunity. The additional $75,000 was for punitive damages, aggravated damages and legal fees.

There was no allowance made, by the way, for Abramovitz’s failure to perform his own due diligence on the rejection. He did not mitigate this harm, just let it happen to him. Typically, any damages you receive are reduced by the percentage at which you are said to be at fault. Because Lee did not defend herself in this suit — Abramovitz got a default judgment — we may never know her side of the story.

The math works, because you can make a reasonable argument that he lost about $300,000 worth of benefits because of never knowing he’d actually been accepted into the program.

Herein lies the problem with the law: it’s designed to put people back where they would have been had the harm not occurred. It’s not designed to create a just and fair society.

Think about what $375,000 would mean to anyone who sues over any harm. A car accident injury. Property losses. Fires, floods, discrimination in hiring, police abuse — the list is endless. All those people have to fight to even get a fraction of $375,000, and those people have suffered real harm. Unlike Abramovitz, who can still be a successful musician and have a good life doing what he does, these individuals have experienced ruin and devastation.

But it’s the way the law works — because the law is designed to keep people where they are. In effect, it props up elites and keeps the poor in their place.

Is that an exaggeration? No — it’s the way things are done. Even if Abramovitz never recovers the $375,000, his life is set. He can play clarinet for a living. He’s not getting a job at Starbucks to make ends meet. He’s not considering retraining to enter another profession. He can still do what he loves, because the law helps the elites stay in power, while getting a little bit of extra money for what really amounts to a minor career detour.

Chris Sacca Was The Best Guest Shark On ‘Shark Tank’

At some point, I plan to write a blog post that ranks all of Shark Tank‘s guest sharks, because thinking about Shark Tank makes me happy. I don’t have a definitive ranking established yet, although I know who will come out on top: Chris Sacca.

Not just because he wore those cool cowboy shirts. But because he fit the program and added to the existing cast. My hope is that he’ll come back, although to have a ghost guest shark make a reappearance would be unprecedented.

(Note: the list of guest sharks doesn’t include Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner, since it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than part of the core cast.)

Guest sharks have a tough job. Since the show became really popular — given the Google Analytics from my old blogging gig at another website, I’d say that peaked in Season 6 — the Big 6 have been integral to the branding. It’s a nice, comfortable group, for viewers and, I would imagine, for entrepreneurs. It’s rare that someone would come in from the outside, sit in those chairs and act like they belong. Here’s why Sacca was able to do it so well.

He clearly wanted to be there.

When Sacca announced his retirement from venture capital investing — on and off television — Forbes reasoned that Sacca made the decision, “despite the investor’s obvious fondness for the limelight of TV and the ability to publicly spar with fellow billionaire Mark Cuban.”

Whether or not it was sheer love of being in front of the camera, Sacca really seemed to enjoy the entire Shark Tank experience. He didn’t fight the existing mold for a panelist and played the game exactly for what it is: a compressed, on-the-spot pitch that relies largely on first impressions instead of advance due diligence.

You could picture Sacca as a fan. He probably watched the show before snagging a (guest) spot in one of those chairs.

Sacca publicly confirmed he was in it for the show, not just the prestige. In an interview with Business Insider he compared Shark Tank to his off-camera investing through Lowercase Capital, saying the television experience was a bit more down-and-dirty.

“Shark Tank’ takes me back to all of the reasons of why I got into this business in the first place. There’s none of the politics of the late-stage deals. Instead it’s just entrepreneurs, their product, and seeing if they can make something that people are really going to use and want. And that’s thrilling for me.”

He asked good questions.

Sacca always seemed to understand that details were essential while assessing any pitch. He knew what to ask, and was good at posing the questions. He could be direct without being intimidating or mean. Other guest sharks would err on the side of kindness, knowing it’s a television program, not yet able to balance the fine line of being likeable on camera while still being a conscientious investor.

He was a credible voice of the gig economy.

Over the years on Shark Tank, viewers have seen the sharks make smarter investment decisions. It took a few years for them to establish which entrepreneurs might be a safe bet, or not. This isn’t just about developing a gut instinct for people; the sharks were putting money into new sectors of the economy they never had before.

Last year, Daymond John told an interviewer that he refused to invest in food during the first three seasons of Shark Tank. The reason? His five years as a server at Red Lobster before he made it big. His first hand experience with food waste (perishable assets) led him to conclude the entire sector was too risky. Ironically, some of his biggest Shark Tank successes ended up being food companies.

Chris Sacca is often described as a Silicon Valley investor, but he brings something different than Robert Herjavec (cyber security) or Mark Cuban. With early bets on Uber and Twitter, Sacca is intimately familiar with newer business models and the evolving nature of employment in the modern economy. It’s a familiarity not enjoyed by other members of the panel, even though they all have money.

He could fight and have the other sharks fight back.

Maybe it was just a Mark Cuban thing, but there was little home team courtesy when Sacca got into a shark fight. Somehow, it wasn’t annoying. It felt right, like it was precisely the tone of drama Shark Tank fans want to see.

There isn’t word yet on the guest sharks for Season 10. Filming started today, according to the core cast’s social media feeds. We know Alex Rodriguez will have another shot; maybe one day Sacca will decide he wants to get back into the investing game and will visit the set one more time.

[Chris Sacca image sourced on Flickr/The Next Web: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenextweb/3501256667]

 

 

 

‘Kiksuya’ Is ‘Westworld’ At Its Easiest And Most Compelling

There hasn’t been much to enjoy about Westworld this season, with its confusing, overloaded episodes that bombard viewers with multiple timelines and several plotlines all at once. Every word is somehow significant, or not — it may solve the entire puzzle, or it may be a miscue, or you could be making things up just to keep it interesting. You can’t really watch Westworld passively, but at the same time, there’s an uncertain payoff if you choose to pay close attention. It may just be a waste of time.

I have the intent, however vain it may be, to re-watch the first seven episodes of Season 2 just to give Westworld a second chance. It’s obviously an expensive production, so someone must really believe in it. Whomever at HBO approved the budget deserves at least a second look before those of us faithful (but cynical) viewers write off the endeavor completely.

That intent grew a little less remote tonight after seeing Westworld‘s latest installment, “Kiksuya.” Instead of going deep with analysis — tough to do with Westworld because, like I say, it may be wasted mental energy — I’m just going to list off why this episode worked.

You may not agree, but as they say, “That’s Entertainment.”

It had a story.

When I first learned that episode 8 was going to focus on the Ghost Nation, I was like, “noooo!” Not another plotline. Not more character introductions. Not more people to keep straight. No, no, no!

But it worked. Because it wasn’t so much a character introduction as opening up that world that had been going on in the background of Westworld since the beginning. Who are those people on horses, except aboriginal stereotypes? Perhaps deeper, more enlightened — and human — than viewers might previously have assumed.

It was easy to follow.

Even a casual viewer, which I was not this evening, could figure out how Akecheta fit into this whole thing and what he was trying to do. There was no mish-mash of seemingly disconnected characters, each with uncertain agendas. It made sense.

Importantly, you could see how the hosts are perhaps much more independent than we’d previously assumed. It had been a decade since Akecheta’s last update, and he was apparently continuing to learn, his memories of past lives becoming deeper, that entire time.

We learned some things.

Ford seemed amazed when he discovered Akecheta was drawn in by the maze. Maybe Ford isn’t controlling things after all. He may be a guiding force, but at least in that moment he seemed pretty much content to let the hosts do whatever they wanted.

It looked pretty.

It did.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Cupcake Girls’ We Barely Knew Ye

In 2018, it seems odd anyone would call their business after the generic name of a product. “Cupcakes,” like “milk,” “bread,” “nuts,” or any other single word you could look up in a dictionary, is hardly SEO-friendly. That may be one reason why it’s so hard to figure out exactly what happened with “Cupcakes,” the tiny chain of stores in Vancouver that sold, well, cupcakes, and had a moderately successful faux-reality series on the W network, The Cupcake Girls.

But in 2002, when Lori Joyce and Heather White started Cupcakes, I imagine SEO was less important. At the time, they claimed to run the only cupcake-specific shop in North America, a competitive advantage that would have been to easy to copy, and was. Somehow, despite the fact that Joyce and White — if their direct-to-camera recollections on The Cupcake Girls were to be believed — knew nothing about baking or business, their enterprise managed to survive.

The Cupcake Girls was a strangely addictive, although frequently irritating, show to watch. It was one of those programs where you could imagine the pitch meeting that got them on the air. “It’s a show — about us! How we make cupcakes! We’re best friends and we know nothing about business!” When time came to film, the proprietors probably pushed back, to say, “Well… we don’t know nothing about business. We want to be relatable, but impressive! We’re fun girls and we have business savvy!” The result was a hodge-podge of recreated scenes, with non-professional actors doing rehearsed dialogue.

Off-camera, the cupcake brick-and-mortars were still in business. One sort-of in my neighborhood, that I would walk past and casually think, “Still there. Hasn’t closed up shop yet.” That feat alone was indeed impressive: in a high rent area, where the commercial landscape had perhaps a half-dozen overhauls since they first opened, to stick it out along with just a few other local shops was no small accomplishment.

I ate one of the cupcakes once. It was as you would expect, a cake-like substance with thick frosting.

Today, the location near me had a bit of a different feel as I walked past. Perhaps it was the emptiness that was just a bit too empty, the hallmark of a shop that isn’t trying to be chic with its roomy interior. The numerous window signs displaying a single message: “Closing Sale.” Inside I could see a small display with sprinkles on sale for $3.00.
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Of course, there would have been one easy way to figure out what happened to Cupcakes. I could have walked in the shop and asked, but that would have meant buying something (out of courtesy). And in Vancouver, we don’t do that. We don’t just ask stuff. We’re a pretty anti-social city, so it didn’t even occur to me to do anything other than browse online to see what was going on with Joyce and White, whom I never exactly envied when I watched The Cupcake Girls, but whom gave me my first bits of small business financial wisdom.

(During one episode, White revealed that in the early days, they knew nothing about cash flow. They would make sales in the front and immediately use the funds to pay suppliers in the back.)

The Cupcake Girls was also my first job as a background performer, and it was a bad one. We weren’t paid, instead recruited as “fans” through the Cupcake Girls Facebook page. It was a long, boring day, during which we had to play disgruntled customers. I found out later that boredom and discomfort is typical with background work, but extras are usually fed and paid. It was quite miserable, but that’s the fault of the production company, to be sure, and not the women themselves, whom I didn’t recall ever being on set. (An email from the producer to me later revealed that, if I’d stuck around long enough after filming wrapped, I would have gotten a free cupcake.)

The most telling piece of information about the fate of Cupcakes came from a Georgia Straight mention this past March, when another Cupcakes location, in the West End, shuttered its doors. In that article, it’s noted that Cupcakes went through a relaunch in June 2016 in conjunction with a new ice cream brand, Betterwith. A month later, Joyce left Cupcakes to run Betterwith. According to her LinkedIn profile, that’s when her time with Cupcakes finally came to an end, 14 years after the brand’s founding. A Straight article at the time of the relaunch quoted White as saying the pair had spent the prior two years trying to come up with a complement to cupcakes, and ice cream was it.

Last year, Joyce was featured in a Globe and Mail article that touted Betterwith’s distinctive feature: being made with traceable milk. According to the article, most milk on the market comes from pooled sources, meaning it’s a mixture of milk from different farms. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to tell where it comes from. Joyce found a way around that problem, by working with a few small farms and dairy producers already distributing traceable milk. Joyce told the Globe that she may soon run out of product because demand is strong and she planned to hit sales targets of $1 million for the first year, up to $40 million by 2020. Betterwith says that the cows are happy, something they can confirm because they can visit the farm where they live.

(I’m skeptical that “happy cows,” and traceability, at least when it comes to dairy, is enough of a competitive advantage to keep Betterwith in business, but that’s an aside.)

The Globe article is suspiciously silent on Joyce’s exit from Cupcakes, except noting her time on The Cupcake Girls and that she was using her “minor celebrity” to promote Betterwith during in-store demos.

As for White, her LinkedIn bio still names her as a co-owner of Cupcakes. But she’s also the co-owner and founder of The Russell, a restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. So she may be spearheading Cupcakes on paper, but maybe she’s not even in town.

So The Cupcake Girls may have finally gotten out of the cupcake business, but they had an undeniably good run. Even though I never did get a free cupcake for my time as an extra, I hope they had a lucrative and peaceful exit from their chain.