High Finance in 'The Newsroom'

Near the end  of fifth episode in the second season of The Newsroom entitled "News Night with Will McAvoy" we are whisked into the world of high finance. Or consulting. With AIG? About macroeconomics? INT. UNIDENTIFIED MIDTOWN SKYSCRAPER - CONFERENCE ROOM- NIGHT

Consultants love Macbooks and Pilot G2s.

CONSULTANT 1: You're not making a rational expectations argument.

CONSULTANT 2: I am. Expectations insofar as they're informed by predictions are essentially--OK, look: if the the prediction in..

CONSULTANT 1: (interrupting) Alright you're making a rational expectations argument but you're not being rational.

CONSULTANT 3: There's no risk here. What're we talking about?

CONSULTANT 1: It's not pure frictionless arbitrage.

 To be sure, those are all words. Here's another version with other, equally meaningful words:

CONSULTANT 1: According to my model using Angus Maddison's data, we could expect a 47 basis point shift upward in our growth trajectory if...

CONSULTANT 2: (interrupting) Excuse me? Your model? You mean your two-column Excel spreadsheet right?

CONSULTANT 1: No--it has pivot tables, too. Trust me on this one. I tinkered with the assumptions for hours until the results made sense. Plus this time series goes back to 11 AD.

CONSULTANT 2: But what about  Knightian uncertainty?

CONSULTANT 1: But. (pause) This one goes back to 11.

CONSULTANT 2: You can't have frictionless arbitrage if prices are sticky!

CONSULTANT 3: What're we talking about? If my ten years in this business have taught me anything it's there's no risk here. Now let's leverage up and do this thing.

This dialogue would have also worked.

Shadow Baby and the Constraints to Power in Game of Thrones

Update: S3E3 "Walk of Punishment" contains a scene between Melisandre and Stannis that elucidates a key physical constraint to shadow baby, which I had mentioned in #2 below. Before the current season of Game of Thrones began, David Chen and Joanna Robinson of the A Cast of Kings podcast took a look back at season two's storylines. One of the developments they revisit was the introduction of the shadow baby, which many viewers saw as either unwelcome genre-shifting (as my friend Elliot espoused in our podcast) or, in David Chen's case, as incomplete and/or illogical world-building. In David's view, the show gave him no sense of any rules governing shadow baby, and he didn't see any reason why Stannis couldn't or shouldn't use it immediately to kill every high value target in Westeros and easily take the Iron Throne. Both of these views don't hold much water when you get over the jarring weirdness of the shadow baby and look at the facts of the world more dispassionately, however.

As for the shadow baby representing a shift in balance from pseudo-medieval historical fiction to fantasy, remember that the very first scene in the show involves both reanimated corpses, i.e. wights, and another race of otherworldly beings identified as White Walkers. The last scene of the season involves a woman not only surviving a raging conflagration but also emerging from the ashes accompanied by dragon triplets (which for my money should've been named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). While the shadow baby seems more overtly mystical to some people, its conception is just as grounded in the physical world as anything else, as I'll outline below. Given these two seminal season one bookmarks and other events in between, shadow baby doesn't represent a departure in realness.

David's criticism about a lack of rules is less understandable to me, especially given that he has watched each episode at least twice. Really his concern isn't about a lack of rules per se, but that the show presented a weapon and provided no limits to its power, which in turn weakens the show's dramatic tension. Here's a refresher of the relevant events (note this is TV only); see if any limits or rules regarding the shadow baby jump out at you:

S2E2 "The Night Lands"

  • Melisandre sees Stannis fretting over his situation map, and tells him she sees how to defeat Renly. But to do that, he must give "all of himself" to the Lord of Light. She promises him a son, and and their lovemaking scatters the war pieces in fiery symbolism.

S2E4 "Garden of Bones"

  • Melisandre: "Look to your sins Lord Renly; the night is dark and full of terrors."
  • Stannis calls on Davos to row the 'Red Woman' ashore: "No one must know what you do, and we'll never speak of this again." Davos says there must be  'cleaner' ways;  Stannis replies, "None that win wars."
  • Davos rows Melisandre ashore in the cover of night. She says things like "a man is good or he is evil" and "shadows...are the servants of light; the children of fire." No doubt this is idle rowboat chatter, however.
  • Melisandra reveals her swollen belly and births a shadowy creature as the flames flare in Davos' lantern.

S2E5 "The Ghost of Harrenhal"

Shadow Baby

  • Later that night, the shadow creature appears in Renly's tent, stabs Renly through the heart, and disappears, having ignored everyone else.  The creature also displays a pate with a distinctive sheen.
  • Davos confronts Stannis the next day and says, "Nothing is worth what this will cost you, not even the Iron Throne." Changing tack, Davos councils Stannis that his men are uneasy with Melisandre's foreign religion and that she should not be a part of the attack on King's Landing. Stannis acquiesces to this advice.

When reading over that list, are you left with the sense that the use of Shadow Baby to start killing people wholesale is desirable, let alone possible? Several constraints appear to me:

  1. Religious constraints: Shadow baby doesn't touch anyone else in the encampment and seems to die like a honeybee after delivering its sting. That and Melisandre's comments to Renly, Davos, and Stannis imply that shadow baby is a single-purpose weapon against specific, 'sinful' people.
  2. Physical constraints:  The  shadow baby is the process of copulation, gestation, and birth. It seems there's at least a few days in turn-around for shadow baby production and if anything the show presents it as something that can't happen regularly  Consider also that the 'baby' is in fact a shadowy version of a full-grown Stannis, not some amorphous blob like its TV forebear the smoke monster, implying it's more a part of Stannis than merely his progeny.
  3. Environmental constraints: Melisandre is rowed ashore at night (which is full of terrors). Any one of the following could be inferred: shadow baby can't travel during daylight; shadow baby can't travel across long distances; shadow baby can't travel across water.
  4. Cultural/karmic constraints: Even if you want to dismiss the first three as speculative, this one is explicit and thematically important: over and over Stannis' use of the the Shadow Baby is presented as a dirty tactic that will lose him respect from his men and perhaps even bring retribution from the gods Stannis has forsaken; even if we don't know what form these costs will take, Davos explicitly says they will outweigh the benefits.

It would be hard for a repeat watcher like David to miss Davos' warnings, so I suspect he's dismissing them as unimportant because they're not binding. This misses both the reality of soft constraints in the real world, but more importantly, it misses one of the key ideas about power the show puts forth. According to Varys, "Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick--a shadow on the wall." In the world of Game of Thrones, power isn't measured by the size of your army or your purse, but how everyone else perceives you. That's what puts shadow baby in a corner.

Behind the Scenes with Ken Burns

PBS is currently running a "Like Drive," offering exclusive videos for every so many 'likes' their Facebook page receives. One of the latest to be unlocked offers a behind-the-scenes look at "The National Parks." The video is a bit of a cheat on PBS' part, since what it shows probably happened three or four years ago--could they find nothing from "Prohibition" or even "The Tenth Inning"?

I like this video though because it offers a brief but accurate feel of a screening with Ken*. Most videos like this, whether they're focusing on a PBS documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, tend to be overproduced in an attempt to make it more entertaining.  The 'fly-on-the-wall' approach favors authenticity (of some form) over entertainment, and appeals to a different curiosity.

*Yes I call him Ken and no he would not remember my name, though he reportedly said I was a 'good guy' after I left the room once. 

During my half-year with Florentine, three films were in various stages of production at the edit house. "Prohibition" was I believe technically wrapped but some work on it was still going on; meanwhile editors were piecing together the first visual versions of "Dust Bowl"(2012) and "The Roosevelts" (2014). During that time three screenings were held at the edit house: two for the two-episode "Dust Bowl" and one for the first four episodes of "The Roosevelts."

Florentine doesn't have a proper screening room at its edit house on account of it being an honest to God house. Instead, everyone crams into the office with the biggest TV, which is a 10' x 20' room on the first floor where a producer and two of the editors usually work. Since these are the first visual cuts of the episode, each episode will run maybe thirty minutes longer than the final version--often over two hours. Finding a comfortable chair is therefore crucial, and those with lumbar support are hotly contested. More than a dozen people--including Ken and co-director Lynn Novick, the writer, editors, etc--will find a space in here, and often another half-dozen will have to trudge upstairs to another impromptu overflow screening room directly overhead. When this is the case, an additional logistical difficulty is presented: the screenings must be started simultaneously, otherwise one screening will always be subjected to the echoes of the other*. As Florentine is always on the cutting edge of media technology, this obstacle is surmounted by connecting the two rooms via the office phone telecom. On the count of three or some such prompt, the person manning the station in each room will press the space bar and set the episode into motion.

* Echoes were expected and tolerated if you were in the overflow, but Screening Room Alpha was always to be slightly ahead if a perfect synch was not achieved.

At the end of these uninterrupted two-hour sessions, many rush to the two bathrooms the edit house generously affords its occupants. After a short break, everyone (even those banished to the overflow) then gathers back in the main screening room to share their impressions. This is Florentine at its most egalitarian: while the key players always give their impressions first, eventually everyone down to the lowliest intern is invited to opine, even if by that point there may be nothing left to add. The resulting discussion sounds something like what you hear in the PBS video, and it's fun to witness.

That all of this goes on in some unmarked house* on the corner of a village street has tickled me since I first started there. Early on I asked some of the younger staff why no one seemed interested in highlighting that part of the Ken Burns production. They shrugged and said that the edit house ethos was to stay well and truly behind the scenes. I suggested that there were ways to accommodate that--my tweets didn't betray anyone's privacy--but I didn't push it any further. I still think plenty of Ken Burns fans would like to see more of what goes on in Walpole, but for now this blogpost will have to do.

*I'm pretty sure there's not even a house number--oh, and you enter through the back. New England can be cold.

A (Partial) Defense of the Multi-Camera Sitcom

Readers may have noticed that in my TV viewing history, I didn't list any multi-camera sitcoms. This is for the remarkable reason that, well, I don't watch any and haven't since long-ago lazy days watching the odd rerun in syndication. Nowadays sitcoms in that style feel anachronistic to me, and even the commercially and (sometimes) critically well-regarded ones like How I Met Your Mother just don't do it for me. I find that I'm actually predisposed not to laugh at them, which is clearly not the intended audience response. I'm not alone in this. For the distinguishing television viewer, sitcoms are overwhelmingly considered passé and even low-culture, even if many of those viewers loved the multi-camera Seinfeld back in the day. This article sums it up:

I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.

You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.

Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.

Despite my agreement with this, I find myself wanting to defend the beleaguered the multi-camera setup, for much the same reasons outlined this excellent piece:

Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that's unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance.

Yep, and this does have its tradeoffs. I don't like multi-camera sitcoms because the artifice of the production is so hard for me to ignore: sets look like sets (heaven forfend anything happen outdoors), lighting is white bright, and studio audience laughter--even when genuine--often sucks me right out. On the other hand, these theatrical aspects allow for stories to unfold in a different way, and lets a relationship and rhythm to develop between actor and audience that's particularly important for comedy.

What's odd to me is that theater is hardly considered lowest common denominator entertainment, but that sensibility applied to TV is. For that reason I wonder whether detractors of multi-camera are applying the wrong set of standards, and maybe even being a bit too distracted by the prettier single-camera aesthetic. Would the writer of the first piece have reacted so distastefully if she had watched the performance of Big Bang Theory live on stage rather than an airplane TV monitor? That's not a apples-to-apples comparison I realize, but single- and multi-camera shows aren't the same kind of fruit either. In terms of production, multi-camera sitcoms have much more in common with Saturday Night Live than they do with a single-camera comedy. The show is filmed in the course of single night, there's usually a live studio audience, and jokes are rewritten on the fly in response to the audience. Does SNL represent such a dated format?

In the first article, the author claims that Arrested Development, a single-camera sitcom, "put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom" for her. Interestingly, that show was created explicitly with the intent to mimic the joke-writing process in traditional sitcoms:

...Ron Howard had this idea to do a single-camera comedy that was as funny as a multi-camera comedy, which sounds sarcastic, actually.


[W]e often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn't an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite. His question was, "What if we shot a show in digital video, so we could go very fast and didn't have to spend an hour and a half lighting for each shot, we could just go out there and start shooting, like Cops or Blind Date? Could we spend that time sharpening the jokes and making a more ambitious production? What would happen if we applied the sensibility of multi-camera to single-camera?"

I may disapprove of most traditional sitcoms, but I will defend to the death their right to more than a single camera.