Netflix is conducting an experiment on us.  In fact they are conducting many experiments, all the time – and so is Amazon, and Google, and Walmart, and everyone else trying to optimize the presentation of information, market to you, or sell you something.  In the language of the business these are called “A/B”, or “split” tests.  The concept is simple:  create multiple treatments (different ad copy, search results listed in a different order, etc.), show different treatments to different users, and see which treatments get clicked on the most.  The practice is now sufficiently pervasive that if you have a rudimentary understanding of, say, algebra, and are sort of vaguely aware that there is this thing called the internet, you too can call yourself a data scientist and do it for a living.

Hey, it’s a growth industry.

But I think Netflix, with their live streaming service, is unwittingly conducting a more subtle experiment as well.  Between the stunning lack of A-list titles in their inventory, and a search engine so primitive that its results oscillate between the nonsensical and the downright bizarre, Netflix challenges us to dig deeper.  To watch movies we would not otherwise consider.  To revisit old classics, long forgotten.

To dig into our own pasts, and see whether our memories stand the test of time.

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Gaze at the modern-day Rorschach test. Look upon the pastiche of also-rans, big-budget flops, straight-to-DVD action thrillers, 60s TV comedies, and docudramas. What patterns do you see, when the images flicker before your eyes? A pretty butterfly? Or something a little more… sinister?

Regular readers (little joke there) will know that I have a young daughter, and also work at a marketing technology job of my own, which is why I know stuff like this.  Both of these experiences are such that my down times, on those rare occasions they occur, tend to be all the way down.  When I surf over to Netflix, I do so in a sleep-deprived, borderline vegetative state, a time of maximum impressionability.

I am thus a perfect candidate for Netflix’s subtle psychological manipulation.  So won’t you come with me now, on a little journey of the imagination?  And let us see together the results of this strange experiment, and what we have learned.

Relationship Sabotage
Full disclosure:  I don’t actually have a Netflix account – but Molly does.  My wife, however, watches even less television than I do; perhaps less than anyone I have ever known.  In fact, between us we don’t even own a TV.  A laptop is more than adequate for our purposes.

It should also be noted that Molly is not, shall we say, an enormous fan of science fiction and fantasy TV shows.

I bring this up because I am now responsible for fully 99% of the titles that have been watched with what has become our de facto joint Netflix account.  At some point, the bill is going to come due:  she is going to log in, have a gander at the “Top 10 for Molly” results, and be left with some serious questions about the man she so recently not only married, but chose to start a family with.

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Ironically, I have zero interest in any of those four shows (though I appreciate the chronological ordering).

Someone very wise once said the key to a successful marriage is separate bathrooms.  It may be that “Separate Netflix Accounts” should be added to the list.

Stay tuned.

Search Engine Madness
If you are even a casual follower of technology, you are probably aware that Microsoft loses a staggering amount of money each quarter with its online services group, which includes its Bing search engine.  So much so that Steve Ballmer has recently announced a re-org that, among other things, will hide the actual number from Wall Street in the future, by combining the group with other parts of the company that still function as a monopoly make money.

All those billions have, however, achieved a couple of things.  First, Microsoft has managed to hold Google to a 70% market share.  If Bing didn’t exist, it would probably be more like 95%.  And second, they’ve actually built a legitimate search technology, the kind of thing I, we, all of us tend to take for granted – right up until it isn’t there.

Here’s a fun thing to try:  type “Terminator” into the Netflix search bar.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

It turns out (no surprise) that Netflix doesn’t have the original 1984 Schwarzenegger classic – though they do have the sequel, a fine movie in its own right.  It’s even at the top of the result set.

But after that, things start to get interesting.  Here is the full list of Netflix’s search results, in all its glory:

  • Terminator 2:  Judgment Day.   No argument there.
  • The Terminators.  Seemingly a straight-to-DVD cyborg movie from 2009, perhaps filmed to trick the gullible into thinking it was also a part of the franchise (right down to the title font).  Alas.
  • Terminal Force.  1995; Brigitte Nielsen.  I don’t know what else to say here.
  • Quarantine 2:  Terminal.  Or here, honestly.

Now the fun really starts:

  • Breaking Bad
  • A Little Bit of Heaven
  • The Rainmaker
  • Last Holiday

What do these four movies have in common?  A main character who is – wait for it – terminally ill.

Up next?

  • Death Race 2.  Included, presumably, because the action takes place on “Terminal Island”.

And my favorite result:

  • Wings.  Yes, that Wings, the early 90s sit-com set in a small-town airport… terminal.

The lesson, of course, is that in the world of search, literal string-matching will only get you so far.  Actually it will take you quite a ways indeed – just not necessarily where you wanted to go.

On the other hand, I haven’t thought about the show “Wings” in years, and though I didn’t watch it, I still can’t help but feel like maybe Netflix won this round.  I mean, it was kinda good… maybe I should check it out sometime…

Dammit!

Science Fiction in TV and Movies, in Five Paragraphs or Less
In fairness, Netflix does have the three greatest science fiction television shows ever made available for streaming:  Star Trek (the original), Battlestar Galactica (the remake), and Firefly.  Less good, Netflix only bats one for three on the best science fiction movies.  Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan is available, but the original Terminator is missing, along with that other James Cameron classic, Aliens.

Your top-three lists may of course be different, but the point is that my time combing the Netflix archives for something worth watching did get me thinking. There is a trend here, which is that while science fiction and fantasy movies have basically gone to hell in a breadbasket,  the television shows keep getting better (the Star Trek franchise itself sadly excepted).  I believe these trends owe almost entirely to the advances in CGI over the last twenty years (well, that and the proliferation of cable channels).

See, in the case of the big screen, special effects have essentially killed the storytelling, and the resulting movies have devolved into a never-ending series of interminable explosion-filled snooze-fests that keep Michael Bay and Will Smith gainfully employed, and me out of the theaters entirely.  The exact transition, the moment where CGI stopped helping and started hurting, happened sometime between 1993, the year Jurassic Park took our breaths away with Actual Real-Looking Dinosaurs (but still with real story attached), and 1998, when the Godzilla remake failed to accomplish anything more than putting a giant-ass lizard on the screen and having it stomp on stuff.  Also in that window of time?  Independence Day (1996), and Starship Troopers (1997).  By 1999, we were into Phantom Menace territory, and the rest is, tragically, history.

The thing is, science fiction has never translated particularly well to film (see the Kyle MacLachlan 1984 Dune – or rather, listen to it, and the raw amount of voiceover it took to explain what the hell was going on to a dumbfounded audience).  Science fiction is about ideas and hypotheticals, the social consequences of extrapolated technological trends, heady stuff like that.  You very often need more than a couple of hours to get it right, which is why I think it isn’t a coincidence that just as CGI began rendering the summer blockbuster unwatchable for anyone over the age of 13, we  began to see genre TV shows that respect their audience’s intelligence and deign to tell an actual story.  In other words, the Star Trek: TNG debacle (a series that existed only to teach us the bitterness of sequel disappointment early, such that the Phantom Menace would hurt a little less) – is recoverable.  Even better, this is true of speculative fiction broadly:  from True Blood to Game of Thrones, there is, dare I say, A New Hope.  In this, at least, I choose to remain optimistic.

The Greatest Writing Challenge of All Time
Writers are sometimes challenged to work from a prompt.  A prompt can be anything – an opening line that must be followed, a picture that will serve as the inspiration of the story, whatever you like.  For example, my writer’s group once ran a challenge where the opening line of the story had to be “He had the dragon’s eyes.”  (I may post my offering here someday.)  Genre magazines do this all the time, as do writing contests.  You get the idea.

The Dukes of Hazzard is not, in fact, the greatest television show ever – we’re still coming to that.   But it has to go down as one of the greatest script-writing achievements in television history, because seemingly every episode is built from the Same.  Exact.  Prompt.  Namely: jump a 1969 Dodge Charger over something.  Seriously.  Inevitably, the climax of the story – or at the very least, a key turning point – involves the Duke boys jumping the General Lee over a ravine, a ditch, a police car, an onrushing train, Daisy Duke, whatever.  Something.

Can you imagine what that assignment must have felt like, for the folks that wrote the show?  Whatever you do, guys, just get that car up into the air.

And then do it again.  And again.  A hundred and thirty two times in all, over seven years.

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As you can probably guess from the roll, pitch, yaw, the General didn’t always exactly stick the landing!  By the way, Lee 1, the first of many General Lees, and the first to take flight in the pilot episode (no pun intended), sold for $121,000 at the world-famous Barret-Jackson automotive auction in 2012.  Apparently the sellers were disappointed not to fetch a higher price.

Now listen – am I guilty of hyperbole here?  Probably.  Maybe you can find an episode where the General Lee stayed on the road the whole time.  I can’t, though.  How could I?  Netflix doesn’t even have the show!  And they still got me thinking about it with their selection of titles.

I’m telling you.  These guys are subtle.

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Tragedy! Watch Knight Rider or the A-Team instead of the Dukes of Hazzard? Puh-lease.

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Thank God for Amazon Prime! $1.99 per episode? IN.

The Greatest Television Show of All Time
I don’t know when I became aware of The Rockford Files.  It debuted when I was a year old, and was off the air by the time I was seven.  My family watched almost no television, outside of the original Star Trek and, oddly, The Love Boat (see below).

And yet, by the time I was a sophomore in college, I was more or less planning my fall quarter classes around the 10-11 AM time slot where the show was being re-run.  I wasn’t the only one – my roommates and I held viewing parties.

Still, years had passed since I’d seen it last.  And then, just the other day, there it was on Netflix, awaiting me in all its glory.

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Truth?  I was nervous when I clicked the link the first time.  The show is going to turn forty next year, which is making me feel old, to say the least.  And sometimes these things really are best left in the past.  Sometimes we should just stay out of the dusty attic of memory, Netflix’s subtle psychological manipulations be damned.

But not this time.

The guitar riff began – deee nuu, nu-na-nu, nu-na-nu-nu-nu-nu-nuuu – and I relaxed immediately.  Forty-two minutes of pure awesomeness was heading my way.

What makes the show so great?  Besides everything, I mean?  For me, it’s just the perfect union of a fun character portrayed but a charismatic actor who looks like he is having a blast, with just complex enough storytelling to keep the reader viewer guessing a little.

Look, if you know, you know, and you don’t need me to tell you.  And if you don’t, the best I can say is go watch.  But here are eighteen quick reasons to get you started:

  1. James Rockford:  wrongly imprisoned for five years, then pardoned by the governor of California.  And yet, he doesn’t keep the pardon on his wall anymore.  Why?  After a while, he tells us, it just stopped being important to him.  Seriously, who works this hard on backstory?  This is deep stuff.
  2. Rockford is perpetually broke.  The same riff that will go on to power Firefly years later – they never quite get the cash, with the exception of the hospital job – is played to the hilt here, and it works.  You watch the show, and you cringe every time your man has to drop ten bucks to buy information from the recalcitrant bartender.
  3. Dude is a fisherman!  It’s a critical part of his psychological makeup – all things being equal, Rockford would much rather be fishing.  And talk about sliding baselines – in one scene we see him having netted what looks like about a 12 pound yellowtail, presumably off the Santa Monica pier.  Good luck doing that anymore.
  4. And then there’s the car.  Inexplicably, Rockford drives a brand-new Pontiac Firebird.  A gold one.  To my knowledge, we are never told where he got the money to buy it.  That car, along with the suits, dates the show perfectly.  (An aside:  twenty years later all those mid-seventies Firebirds and their Camaro cousins would be broken down along the hot California highways Jim blazes up and done with such panache, to the point that when I lived in San Diego, they became a sort of unit of distance.  As in:  how far is it to San Bernadino?  About four Camaros.)
  5. Rockford pioneered social engineering before social engineering was called social engineering.  Give that man some nickels and a pay phone, step back, and watch the magic happen.
  6. He is also a technology hacker.  His biggest innovation:  the portable printing press, and the made-up business card.  Imagine what Jim Rockford could’ve done in the age of LinkedIn.  The mind reels.
  7. He keeps his gun in a sugar jar, calls it a cannon, and refuses to carry it.
  8. He is also a Korean army veteran, which is fascinating for historical context if nothing else.  By 1982 we would have Stallone’s First Blood capturing the national zeitgeist with respect to Vietnam, and we were already two years into M*A*S*H at that point – none of whose characters were about to return home in any kind of shape to have their Korean War experience turn them into smart-aleck PIs.  In this sense, the show is sort of a throwback, like they  chose Korea for the title character’s past because it had been a little too long since World War 2 for the ages to add up.
  9. Jim Rockford cannot be tailed by the police.  He can, however, be run down by the bad guys, but only on occasion – just enough to keep you nervous.
  10. He values self-preservation.  Highly.  This is a thinking person’s hero.
  11. He has a former cell-mate named Angel, a two-bit con-man, whom he hires for help when the occasion demands, and unapologetically nearly gets killed.  Repeatedly.
  12. He describes the bad guy’s enforcers (number appearing:  two and always two; they’re like Sith lords) as “gorillas”.
  13. He absolutely does not get along with the police – it’s actually a running theme of the show, that the cops are also often the bad guys.  Well, except for his buddy Dennis, who he leans on for favors.  Again, repeatedly.
  14. Rockford is an absolute, complete and utter smart-aleck.  Women love him.  Bad guys and cops immediately detest him.
  15. He’s tough enough to be a tough guy, but is constantly getting jumped, beaten up, and generally abused.  The result, again, is that you are always rooting for him, and always a bit nervous for him.
  16. Whatever you do, don’t call the man “Rockfish”.  ’nuff said.
  17. His favorite meal is hot dogs or tacos, and coffee
  18. He lives in a trailer.  By the ocean.

I could go on.  But to stay fair and balanced, there is  a single good reason not to watch.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you:

  1. Jim’s father – aka Rocky.  They actually used a different actor for the pilot, and all I can say was he was no better.  The one and only part of the show that is consistently unwatchable.

He does raise an interesting question, though:  who are the worst sidekicks (television or movie) of all time?  This is probably best left for a separate post, so I shall present my opening offer without further comment:

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Rocky, where he belongs: the Sidekick Hall of Shame

But not even Noah Beery Jr. can hold down the greatness of the show.  It’s just too good.  And I’m only halfway through the first season.  Talk about having a lot to look forward to.

Epilogue:  Star Trek vs The Love Boat
Star Trek and the Love Boat:  these were the two shows I grew up with.  Why, I have no idea.  My parents ruled Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island too racy for my sister and my young minds, so instead I have Captains Kirk and Steubing etched into my subconscious.  Now I suppose the thought experiment is inescapable, but I’ve often wondered:  what if we just sort of… switch them up?  Change the crews, the missions, the ships, and make two entirely new shows instead?

The Love Boat basically ports (heh) directly:  drop Captain Steubing and the gang onto the Enterprise, dress up the accommodations a bit, and the rest writes itself.  Romulan ale and green Orion girls and paradise planets every other episode – fair to say these guys would’ve gathered the laurel leaves, no tribble at all.

But transporting the crew of the Enterprise onto a cruise ship takes a little more work.  Here’s my thinking:  the world as we know it is no more.  Sea level has risen a hundred meters; a century has passed since the ensuing collapse.  What remains of civilization has coalesced around the survivors in Scandanavia (since they invested heavily in alternate fuels).

They call their new society the Federation, and set forth to seek out other life, other civilizations that have survived the fall.  Available to them?  That once ubiquitous form of transportation:  all those Norwegian cruise lines ships that plied the seas in ages past.

They re-christen the mightiest of these (America’s Pride, in a moment of bitter irony) the Enterprise, and off they go.

Which means, I suppose, that Khan is marooned in the Seychelles somewhere.  Lurking, seething, sitting with nothing to do but ponder world domination for want of a decent vessel.  That, and kill time watching re-runs of the Rockford Files, which flicker maddeningly on his half-burned-out monitor, barely supported by a single, surviving Netflix server, hidden deep in a data center where it conducts its unending experiments, lost and forgotten by all…

Consider yourself warned.

As for me, I think it’s time I either got some sleep, or went outside for a while.

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