A Long Time Ago, We Used To Be Friends . . . And Veronica Mars, Apparently We Still Are!

The video game Torment: Tides of Numenera broke records on Kickstarter last week when it more than reached its goal of $900,000 in–according to CNN’s reporting–roughly seven hours. Over the course of thirty days, and currently holding the number ten spot on the list of most successful Kickstarter campaigns, the video game Elite: Dangerous raised $2,405,511 (1/4/13). A film revival of the ahead-of-its-time-and-therefore-cancelled-before-its-time Veronica Mars (2004-2007) has raised $2,117,773 as of yet, hitting the $1M mark in 4 hours and 24 minutes (according to CNN.com) and, in the time it’s taken me to write this single paragraph, going from having raised $2,096,134 to $2,120,638. And I assure you, I am not a slow typist.

Veronica Mars (season 1)

Veronica Mars (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In less than a day, they’ve reached their goal, and they’ve still got 29 days to go. Out of the 2,150,000 viewers who watched the series finale (which was not its all time high, and does not factor in the countless people who have cultishly tuned in since), only 34,013 have actually given money to the show ($2,129,273, as I live and breathe). Including my own $50 contribution, which’ll get me a T-shirt, the film on DVD, and a documentary of the making of the movie, which–if Rob Thomas’s personal Kickstarter campaign video is any indication–should be hilarious. Whereas yesterday the prospect of a Veronica Mars didn’t exist, the question now isn’t even whether this campaign will rake in more than the Pebble: E-Paper Watch’s record-setting $10,266,845, or if it will outperform Torment: Tides of Numenera, which is currently at $2,575,028 (with 22 days to go), but what exactly Veronica Mars: The Movie will look like, or if Warner Bros., which owns the property, will be content to sit back as a mere distributor now that they’re starting to see how piranha-like the fans have grown. What can we learn from the current $2,167,816 total?

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Sure, that’s one way to look at it: well, that and the fact that many of the people who grew up watching Veronica Mars are eight years wealthier. Like collectors like Chris Kohler, you buy every single Nintendo cartridge ever released in America, not because you especially want to play any of them (though I say you should give the underrated Clu Clu Land a shot; that got me through chicken pox as a kid), but because you can buy them. Only in this instance, you actually do want to play them, because unlike the comic book traders who hope that their collections will appreciate in value, you’re investing in a product that doesn’t yet exist. If Voltaire were around today, you know he’d be a fan: “If Veronica Mars: The Film didn’t exist, we would have to create it,” and voila, we did.


When I started writing this piece, it was with the rule that if I was still writing a sentence that had a number from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter page in it, I’d update it. After hypnotically re-re-re-re-replacing numbers, feverishly attempting to finish the sentence in the seconds of downtime between stock-ticker-like updates, I changed my policy and just let them stand as they had only seconds ago. You know, seconds ago in this fast-moving digital age when the prospect of a Veronica Mars film didn’t exist; when Arrested Development hadn’t uncancelled itself (as Futurama and Family Guy once did; bring on Dinosaurs!); when we were still hammering away at rocks, not keyboards; when fire, not electricity, not high-speed Internet, was literally the hot new thing. Anything was possible: $2,191,326.

Or Maybe It’s Not Absence So Much as Presence

Right, because when you were a kid, you had to bargain with your parents to watch television bartering away chores for the right to watch GI Joe before school and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers at the Saturday morning breakfast table (boy, does that seem like a raw deal now). Because when Eureka’s Castle and David the Gnome ended, there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. But now, after suffering the indignities of seeing Farscape scrapped in its prime (while Stargate SG-1 soldiered on . . . by cannibalizing members of the Farscape crew), after realizing that fan campaigns and influential television critics (and cunning product placement) could save shows like Chuck, and after seeing new media aggregates revive shows as long gone as even, maybe, Jericho, you realized you had a presence. The Internet gave you a voice, on- and offline conventions pooled that voice into an Occupy Wall Street-esque Digital Megaphone, and you could beg for more.

Or Maybe I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Veronica Mars (season 3)

Veronica Mars (season 3) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then again, though we’re at $2,234,122, maybe none of that’s the takeaway. After all, this is Veronica Mars‘s moment–finally–and we shouldn’t start trying to crowd-finance new episodes of Farscape, even though there’s still nothing like it on television and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s soon likely to have some time on his hands. As I was writing in my last post, do we really want to force creators to monetize their own work as well, and to do so by going directly to fans, cutting out the middlemen who would, in profiting from it, also help to subsidize the costs? Granted, we’re all meaninglessly titled “associate producers” in our own special way for this “joint” production of Veronica Mars, and that’s cool, but just because we can kick The CW for letting our favorite heroine bite the dust, don’t we also have to thank her for introducing us to her in the first place? Inventing God entirely from scratch is lazy; why do you think so many religions share so much in common?

I also think we ought to stop and take a good look at the people who haven’t, but easily could have, jumped on this bandwagon. Joss Whedon funded Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog on his own during the writer’s strike and his most recent film, Much Ado About Nothing, reminds me of the scrappy and creative early works from Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Kevin Smith (Clerks), though Whedon may be pulling a Benjamin Button in that he’s going from massively funded films like The Avengers to genuinely inventive, small-scale cinema. Studios might not finance a sequel to Serenity, but might fans? If so, however, what control would he be giving up to appease those viewers who would now literally have a stake in the film? If one producer is already too many (from a creative “cooks around the fire” standpoint), how about inheriting forty thousand highly opinionated ones? Would this just end up being a “careful what you wish for” situation, with Rod Serling stepping out of the fourth wall (and the grave, I guess) to introduce very expensive, incredibly creepy, featuring-the-original-cast fan fiction?

I’m thrilled–thrilled–that we’re at $2,254,204 with 30 days to go, and that I can say “we” because I’m one of the smallest parts of it. I’m sure I’ll be checking the Kickstarter page on a daily basis just to watch those numbers fly higher and higher. (Like the good old debt clock, but less depressingly!) But I won’t get ahead of myself: the film–assuming it remains just that–still has to be shot . . . more importantly, it still has to live up to expectations without pandering to them. Then again, I’m ready to dispense with cable, especially since I’ve just now calculated that I spend roughly $1,176.36 a year on it: that’s crowdfunding for roughly 24 shows, or the number that I actually give a shit about each year. So Veronica Mars, ever the societal rabble-rouser, let’s do it. Let’s solve the mystery of how a show that could raise this much money so quickly ever managed to get cancelled in the first place.

So, Steven Soderbergh Is Quitting Cinema Because People Are Stupid (And the Oscars Prove It)

Mary Kaye Schilling catches the always candid and often eloquent Steven Soderbergh on the eve of his retirement in an article for New York‘s February 4, 2013 issue, and for me, the most interesting takeaway is the thought of just how much audiences — both those producing and those watching films — have shifted since the man’s career began in in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape. I feel his pain: though I’ve got nowhere near as much experience as the man, especially within the industry, the statement that “when I see a movie that’s doing the obvious thing all the time, it’s frustrating” resonates with me, and reminds me of what I said earlier this week when I noted that whether a piece of art makes sense to me or not, I want it to at least stand distinct from other things. How can you not admire Soderbergh for the variety of cinematic styles he’s tried in the last two years alone, or for the fact that when he worked on Contagion, he cut almost an hour of material because he wanted to “take advantage of what that subject had to offer while avoiding disaster-movie cliches,” which made him “think laterally, which was good.” Obviously the man’s frustrated with a world that apparently rewards the lazy unoriginality of A Good Day To Die Hard, or an industry that appears to no longer to respect those who make great movies, only those who make financially successful ones. No wonder he no longer wants to make films for an audience that’s bewildered by ambiguity: “I remember during previews for [Contagion] how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.’ People were really annoyed by that.”

The conclusion he reaches is similar to the one I’ve arrived at:

I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people . . . Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that there really aren’t all that many exceptions to the rule, even on the Oscar shortlist. Life of Pi loses much of its effectiveness in the shift from being within the author’s head to a visual medium; Django Unchained is undeniably beautiful, but not really all that revealing; Les Miserables does one risk-taking thing over and over again until it’s driven into the ground; Beasts of the Southern Wild only feels as if it’s something new because it’s covering an overlooked environment in a magical style but I’d rather watch In America or The Fall Zero Dark Thirty and Argo are both taking varying degrees of flak over their fidelity, though this seems fairly forgivable in the latter’s case; and while I haven’t yet seen Lincoln, I’m not quite sure of its cultural impact, though I’ve high hopes given the actors and director that it’ll be a somewhat penetrating look into a specific point in history. (Silver Linings Playbook and Amour are the two films I’m most looking forward to seeing, but still; that’s two films in an entire year?)

Of course, while films may not matter as much, the act of watching films is apparently bigger than ever. If you don’t watch the Oscars tonight, or at least attend a party about them, your friends may mock you. Live tweeting the awards is just one more step removed from the meditative way in which one once lost themselves in the flickering cinema lights. The cultural impact of a film is less in the way it affects us personally but in the way it affects our self-identity; how many people on their first date inevitably fall back not on discussing a film but on films they happen to like, films that they think reflect positively upon themselves. (Requiem for a DreamRatatouilleAlmost Famous, if you must know.) This gets back to the superficiality that Soderbergh is fleeing in the cinemas, and which he rightly despises in critics, who he believes to be “easily fooled” and who “praise things that [he feels] are not up to snuff.” Here’s a chilling statement about criticism (and, on a larger scale, the everyone’s-a-critic implications):

I find critics to be very facile when they don’t like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue tied.

If we can’t explain what we like, and often simply dismiss what we don’t, is it no wonder that bad films are proliferating the market? Overwhelming an audience before it can respond seems to be the best way to make a profit, and so perhaps Soderbergh’s correct in shifting attention to television, particularly shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that take a deeper, long-form narrative response, and which, because they give audiences the chance to tune out with each passing week, must do more to earn back viewers than any other medium. Here’s hoping that AMC and HBO were reading this interview and are savvy enough to lock Soderbergh up in the development of a new television series while they’ve got the opportunity.

Shamelessly Addictive

There’s a mistaken belief out there that reality television is a cheap substitute for scripted programming: you don’t have to write anything, the cast is generally replaceable after fifteen minutes or a season (whichever comes first), and product placement is even easier here than on, say, a game show because contestants pull double-duty as “celebrity” endorsers. This is perhaps true for follow-cam shows: you know, the ones in which a camera crew follows around a larger-than-life personality and then a bunch of lawyers and a sweatshop of tortured editors cobble together footage that demonstrates what life is “really” like . . . at least, for those of us who spend their lives with cameras following them around. But as with most stigmatized cultures, there’s an entire hierarchy of such programming, and while the sleaziest may be the voyeuristic shows that are so obviously (or obliviously) fake that they need to put the word “Real” in their names, you’ve also got a wide variety of competition-based shows, some of which actually require skills and others which avoid pandering to demographic stereotypes by taking voting decisions out of America’s hands. At the bottom of this food chain, you’ve got your gimmick-packed, celebrity judged “talent” shows that are about as jingoistic as it gets; higher up the ladder, you’ve got specialized and more refined programming that focuses on food, dancing, dragging. And then, at the top, there’s King of the Nerds, which I don’t think anybody’s actually watching, but which is subversively entertaining. 

A few disclaimers, first. My favorite reality competition is another little-seen gem, Solitary, and I’m a long-time watcher of Survivor. These two shows are reality competitions, but they’re also heavily scripted: writers have to come up with clever challenges, casting directors have to find charismatic characters, and hosts need enough information fed to them to actually carry on an intelligent conversation with the cast — one that might change the outcome of the program itself. It’s also worth noting that I think sticking similar people in a house is ultimately far more interesting than putting disparate professions together, especially when they have to later face off, ala Last Comic Standing or The Ultimate Fighter, two shows that are far more similar than they seem at first title. (Similar personalities works, too, though only if you’re looking for a train-wreck, as in the ego-clashing glory of The Celebrity Apprentice, which could just as easily be called So Meatloaf, Dennis Rodman, and Gary Busey Walk Into A Bar and Search For Relevance And God In the Presence of Donald Trump.) I think So You Think You Can Dance is probably the most positive and polished of the performance-based shows, but I’m generally in awe of physically impressive feats. (Emphasis here is on impressive, so humiliation-based competitions, like Wipeout, are no good and in their episodic format are closer to game shows than reality television.)

So for those of you who have been watching, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy King of the Nerds, and not just because the references are entirely at my level. (Dance Central 3 makes a pivotal appearance, but there’s no Rock Band, and I’m disappointed that Chess is the go-to board game and not Settlers of Catan or a more complex all-day euro-game like Twilight Struggle.) After all, the casting is impeccable, with people all over the emotional/social spectrum, to say nothing of varying degrees of mental capacity, from Alana Smith-Brown’s leper-like claim to fame as “a comic-book fan” (who will later be eliminated in a comic-book challenge) to Hendrik’s over-compensatory intellect as a geophysics engineer at MIT who, thinking he had something to prove, wound up voting himself into a one-on-one elimination round. You might complain that some cast members, like game designer Ivan Van Norman or NASA engineer Moogega Cooper, aren’t nerdy enough — but that’s sort of the point. These people may have been picked on, or picked last, but they’re all comfortable in their own skin — at least, comfortable enough to be exploited on a show that “forces” them to live in a mansion called Nerdvania, a place filled with giant twenty-sided dice and Batman statues, to say nothing of the Radio Shack gadget room. They’ve got to be in on the joke, especially a hacker like Virgil Griffith, who doesn’t mind being caricaturized as the scheming villain of the show . . . because he’s straightforward and logical enough to know that his actions, no matter how malicious they may seem, are the right moves. Even the pink-haired game vlogger Danielle Mackey ultimately embraces the way she’s being edited, shifting from a whiny brat to being, well . . . a whiny brat who owns it. Confessionals are often repetitive and cocky bits, spliced together after the fact to make a character seem less intelligent than they are; here, they take on a meta-level, for everyone’s smart enough to self-edit and analyze exactly what’s going on around them, and to offer up clever commentary on that.

As Virgil confides, however, nobody on the show is Spock. They’re intelligent, but they’re also young — all of them in their mid-twenties — and often filled with emotional quirks or insecurities, as with the creative and gangly Genevieve Pearson or the anxious professional gamer Celeste Anderson, who most likely got hooked on video games so that she wouldn’t have to compete in real-world activities. And here’s where the writing comes in: challenges need to push and prod to get these self-defining nerds to compete in identifiably nerdy activities while at the same time pushing them outside of their comfort zones. It has to teach the viewing audience about nerd culture, pandering to broad and accessible stereotypes, but at the same time be intelligent enough to actually have the contestants compete. For instance: solving a sudoku puzzle is too simplistic, but what if they first have to take on a physical challenge like assemble the pieces of a giant Rubik’s Cube to get the initial orientation of numbers on the grid? Cosplay — dressing up as a character — or LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) are niche activities, and therefore easy to gawk at, especially since they’re being taken so seriously. (Consider that Kevin Smith was brought on a guest judge for a Comic Book Debate, or that the musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates helped to critique each team’s “Nerd Anthem.” These are serious credentials, though it’s a shame that Jonathan Coulton wasn’t available.)

If there’s any real complaint with King of the Nerds, it’s that it’s not nearly challenging enough. Why hasn’t a team had to build a robot and teach it to break dance? Why hasn’t there been a mini puzzle hunt (of the MIT difficulty) in which the teams race to finish first? Then again, if the show were a true competition of nerd knowledge (remember Beat the Geeks?) or technical ability, it’d be a lot harder to laugh at. The joke is on the producers, though; whereas the similarly styled Who Wants To Be A Superhero? could only mock its (game) cast, the crew on King of the Nerds is smart enough to play this game for what it is — entertaining television. Much as you may want to simply dismiss and laugh at each participant, they’re actually forging friendships and feeling bad at having to send someone home each week, which is more than you can say of the soulless denizens of Big Brother or the occasionally offensive (and/or racist) specimens that show up on The Amazing Race, for laughs. It’s hard to imagine that the writers aren’t in on it, especially since they’ve gone through the trouble of dressing up the hosts (Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds) as the truly ridiculous ones, though some points have to be deducted for forcing the cast to eat Little Caesars week after week.

But hey, the acknowledged artificiality of King of the Nerds, much like the campy special effects of early yet beloved science fiction programming, is part of what makes it all so shamelessly addictive. Besides, the prize is a Throne of Games, and who can resist wordplay like that? Not this nerd.

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