Burn Notice

Gaining Leverage

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This post will cover a few related topics. They’re all about TV shows.

We probably watch too much TV, and I make no apologies for it. We lead reasonably intense lives and watching TV shows works wonderfully to help us escape and unwind. I have more forgiving tastes than Lois (meaning, I would watch a lot more bad shows, especially comedies), but our overlap is quite good, and gives us plenty of choices.

When the new seasons come up, we’re somewhat selective of what to try out. Partially, because we already watch a lot. Partially, because a lot of stuff doesn’t even look remotely interesting from the commercials. That said, there are shows that look interesting to me, that Lois poo-poos from the commercials, and given how much we watch already, I am OK passing on them.

This year, one such show was Leverage on TNT. I like hi-tech spy/theft stuff. Two of the shows that we’re both in love with are Chuck and Burn Notice. Chuck is way more on the comedic end of the scale, though it’s still set in the spy motif. Burn Notice is simply a fantastic show, in every respect. For me in particular, I love how they explain all of the spy stuff, and break it down (like a magician, revealing his tricks).

When I saw the first commercial for Leverage, I knew I would like the show. Lois saw the same commercial, and yawned (who knows why, since she loves Burn Notice and Chuck). So, I never added it to the list of things to DVR this season.

I had a twinge whenever I saw a commercial for it, but I took a deep breath, and let it go…

Yesterday I posted about KCRW’s podcast, The Business. On an episode that I listened to on Saturday, while out walking in Rockwood Park, they interviewed Dean Devlin, Executive Producer of Leverage (this episode is from a few months back). Dean explained that the post production for Leverage happens in an all digital facility, and why they can produce more effects, in less time, for less money, due to that setup.

That got me intrigued (again) in checking out Leverage. Lois was out of the house with a friend for a couple of hours right after I got back from my walk. I found episode one online (more on that in the next related topic part of this post), and watched it alone, on my laptop. I really liked it, a lot.

When Lois got back, I told her that I really wanted her to watch it, in case she enjoyed it as much as I did, and we’d add this to our regularly watched list. Since Lois is legally blind, watching on a laptop is not an option. So, I trotted out a 25′ HDMI cable (it was still in the bag), and connected my laptop to our 42″ HDTV. Describing some of those ins-and-outs will be part three of the related topics in this post. For now, back to the show.

Lois ended up liking it a lot. Over the next two days, we watched the first six episodes (the first season is over, with 13 episodes in total, and the show returns this summer, and we’ll watch it on the real TV). How we watched it is back to topic #2, which I’ll defer for just a few more paragraphs…

A few months back (January to be specific), our good friend Wes strongly recommended that we check out the show The Mentalist on CBS. I asked him whether it needed to be watched in order (from episode one), and he thought not, that each episode could stand on its own. So I started recording it on our DirecTivo, including repeats, to start building up the season. We now have 14 of the 19 episodes on the DVR, but not the first five.

Given our success watching Leverage on our TV (through the laptop), I decided that we would give The Mentalist a shot in order, through the laptop as well. We watched the first two episodes and really like the show. Thanks Wes! I think Wes is correct that they could probably stand alone, but I’m also glad we watched them in order (so far), because the first episode (called “Pilot”) really sets up the scenario for why he does what he does. The second episode flashes to that motivation, but it’s more powerful to already understand what they’re flashing to.

Certain shows have to be watched serially. One of the quintessential examples of that is another of my favorite shows (Lois fluctuates wildly in her appreciation of the show), Lost. If you miss even 10 minutes of a single episode, you might really end up Lost (pun intended).

Burn Notice is somewhat like that. In every episode, there are always two themes:

  1. Working a case for a client (this stands alone, each and every week)
  2. Tracking down why our hero was Burned (this is serialized, but nowhere near to the extent Lost is)

So, you can enjoy Burn Notice out of order, but it makes much more sense in order. Both Leverage and The Mentalist would best be enjoyed if you at least watch episode #1 first, to thoroughly appreciate the premise and setup, but after that, it’s probably OK to watch them out of order, even if you will end up missing a reference to a past show.

On to related topic #2: Watching TV online

If you’ve read this space before, then you know that I am a respecter of IP (Intellectual Property Rights). I buy a ton of music, including multiple copies of the same CD in order to give them as presents. I don’t look for torrents of movies or TV shows, just because they’re easy to find.

That said, while I’ve paid to watch a show I’ve missed (I wrote about purchasing an episode of NCIS from Amazon Unbox), it’s a last resort for me, given that the original show was completely free (including advertising, when you’re watching it on the DVR). So, I work hard to find a streaming version of the show online, before paying for it (on principal, not the money!).

My thought, perhaps a little self-serving, is that if it’s available for streaming, especially for a long while, then it isn’t being shut down by the copyright holder. After all, I’m finding it on a Google search, which the studios could do (and likely are doing) better than I could. To repeat, I realize why they may have more trouble tracking down illegal torrents of the shows, and I avoid those.

So, on tnt.tv, they stream six full episodes. They don’t even stream a single commercial, before, during or after the show! However, those six episodes are not conecutively numbered. They currently offer (as of this writing) episodes 3-4-5, 7-8-9. In other words, episode #6 in not available.

I know that some studios have a rolling number of episodes available. They might have four at a time, and when a new one becomes available, the oldest of the existing four will roll off. Some just make the current (or one before that) available. They each have their reasons, I’m sure, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they are!

I would guess that on some level, they are trying to force you to watch it on their schedule, meaning, within some reasonable period of time of its original airing. Why? if there is a way to monetize these shows online (and I’m not saying there is!), then more episodes available should equal more monetization. If there isn’t a model (e.g., TNT showing Leverage with zero commercials), then why restrict which episodes are available?

By me being able to watch Leverage online, I have become a fan. When the new season starts this summer, I’ll definitely watch, on TNT itself, rather than online. If none of their episodes was available online, there’s little chance that I would have gotten into this show. The Mentalist is slightly different, as I started taping it before I watched it online, but I will enjoy the show more, now that I’ve gotten the taste from the beginning, and that only happened online.

But, CBS, which used to air full episodes of The Mentalist online, has pulled that show (and others, including Eleventh Hour, which we also really like). Reading some of the fan sites, it might not be a CBS decision, but rather the production company which owns those shows. Either way, a great way to reduce your potential fan base.

Here’s what works for me (I think I wrote about this in one of my Video on Demand posts). Put in no more than five minutes (preferably two) of commercials, that can’t be fast forwarded through, in your online content. Allow the entire stream to be paused and rewound, but even in fast forward, force the stop in a commercial, so if I want to fast forward to a late segment, I have to watch the commercials again. It’s a small price for having ubiquitous content available, on demand, over the Inernet.

Most people will not enjoy that experience as much (not because of the commercials), so it will become another avenue to discover content that can be delivered more effectively (today, not in the future) to their TV.

You’ll notice that I said that CBS no longer streams The Mentalist online, and that episodes #1, #2 and #6 of Leverage aren’t on TNT either. And yet, we watched all of them online, on two different streaming sites. Finding The Mentalist was a bit of a Google challenge, but I ended up being up to the task. Finding Leverage was trivial. 😉

The episodes of Leverage that are available on TNT required extra downloads from TNT in order for their player to work in IE and Firefox. The player doesn’t work in Google Chrome (no prompts for a download), and I haven’t checked, but I suspect that it would fail in Safari too, which is based on Webkit, just like Google Chrome is.

Related topic #3: Technically connecting the laptop to the TV

I have written in the past about connecting my old laptop to the TV, using S-Video and normal RCA audio cables, with decent success. This laptop has an HDMI port, and a VGA port, no S-Video. VGA is a little messy, because it requires a powered converter between the laptop and the TV. I have one, so I can use it when necessary (to connect to an older TV in a hotel room, for example), but at home, I can use HDMI.

This weekend was my first attempt to do so, even though I bought the 25′ HDMI cable long ago, just for this purpose.

Even though on some levels I’m an expert user of computers in general, I (like many people) still fumble when doing something out of the ordinary. Doing this the right way is certainly out of the ordinary. Here, in my opinion, is the right way (in Windows, specifically Vista in my case):

  1. Connect the HDMI cable to the TV and to the laptop
  2. Power on the TV and set the input to that HDMI connection (Input #2 in my case, since #1 is connected to my DVR)
  3. Right-click on the desktop, and bring up the “Settings” panel (in my case, it’s a specific Nvidia Control Panel, and in XP, it’s a generic Desktop Settings panel)
  4. My Nvidia Control Panel makes this next step very easy. It’s a little trickier on a generic XP settings page. I just selected Use Two Displays (with separate content, meaning, not mirrored). This won’t show up unless you have the HDMI in, with the TV on. For a generic XP setup, I believe that you have to click on the smaller screen, labeled 2, and configure it…
  5. Set the resolution of the second display to full HD (1920×1080). I don’t recall whether it was the default or not, but I believe it was, and I believe it was the recommended setting, sensed by the laptop from the TV’s capability
  6. Set the default sound output to be the HDMI device (if you want the sound to come out on your TV!)
  7. Fire up a fresh browser (quit your old one if it was open, then relaunch it). This will ensure that the new default sound device (HDMI) will be where your browser sends its sound!
  8. Optional: Reset your default sound device back to the laptop. I did this, because I got annoyed hearing my IM bings and email sounds coming out on the TV (loudly). Once you do this, only the fresh browser intance launched in step #7 above will have its sound going to the TV!
  9. Navigate to the site that will stream your video while the browser window is still on your laptop display (it’s way easier than navigating once the browser is displayed on your TV)
  10. Get the video all set up, and pause it immediately. Notice which button is set to Full Screen within the video window (very few players don’t have a full screen mode)
  11. Drag the browser window off the laptop screen to the right edge. It should appear on your TV as you are doing this
  12. Hit play on the video, and only after it starts, hit the Full Screen button/control that you noted in step #10

That should do it. You should be watching your video in reasonable quality, in full screen, with sound coming through the TV. Our experience was quite pleasant. Our Internet connection is a very high speed Verizon FiOS one, so that doesn’t hurt. Depending on the player and encoding, I adjusted the aspect control on my TV to get the best fit (The Mentalist looked better with a different setting than Leverage).

Enjoy! 🙂

Lost – Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD

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On the weekend of August 18th, 2007, our godson and his good friend (who we count as a good friend as well now for many years) visited us in NYC. I commemorated that weekend with five posts in a row. For me personally, the highlight was our accidental (and serendipitous) discovery of Girlyman on August 19th at Joe’s Pub!

We all had a total blast (on the off chance that you couldn’t tell that from the posts themselves). 😉

To thank us for the weekend, they bought us the DVD sets of Lost, Seasons 1 and 2. Of course, we were thankful for the gift and the recognition of our effors to create a memorable weekend. That said, we didn’t expect that we’d enjoy Lost all that much.

A number of times, I’ve mentioned that on some things, I’m a huge laggard. It took me forever to buy a standalone DVD player. I had a few DVR’s, so I didn’t see the need to play any DVD’s.

Lois, being a collector/archivist/gatherer (pick your own noun), was buying DVDs that interested her, long before we had a machine to play them on. When the choices started to include wide vs full screen, I encouraged her to buy wide screen, even though we didn’t own a wide screen capable tv!

Anyway, we eventually bought a DVD player for the house and the apartment. We also finally got a wide screen (HDTV) for the bedroom in the house, though everywhere else is still an old analog tv.

That background aside, the reason we didn’t think we’d enjoy Lost is that we had zero interest in watching it when it first came out. We don’t like any kind of horror movies. We don’t watch any reality shows either. Somehow, this felt like the combination of the two (at least from the buzz).

We had it on the shelf for two months, and I could feel Lois itching to at least try it, so that we could honestly give our feedback and say thanks (again) for the gift. A little over a week ago, with only reruns on regular tv anyway, we started season one. We’re obsessive types to begin with (I’ve mentioned that a number of times as well), so we averaged at least four episodes a day, every day. Each DVD has a maximum of four episodes on them, and there are six DVDs per season, plus one bonus DVD.

It’s interesting from the beginning, but for us (remember, our tastes probably aren’t normal), the first three episodes were also quite choppy, some excellent moments, and some mind-numbing stupidity. We hesitated pushing on. We are both 100% sure that if we had watched it on regular tv, with commercials, waiting a week between episodes, there is no chance that we would have watched after the third episode.

Thankfully, watching on DVD, with zero commercials, and the ability to watch as many episodes in a row as you can stand, and with the additional motivation of not wanting to tell our benefactors that we gave up, we kept watching.

We got totally hooked. We just finished season two this morning.

Here are a few thoughts on the show, without giving away anything whatsoever.

There are two separate themes in every episode:

  1. What is happening to the group, in terms of their predicament
  2. What is happening to individual characters, in terms of their former lives, and how it has shaped them and somehow becomes mirrored in an island interaction

The general story line is incredibly inventive, and often brilliant as well. There are things that happen that you simply can’t imagine how they are going to explain, without some magic. Often though, many episodes later, they explain it in a way that simply feels completely right and natural. Kudos to the writers for delivering that kind of experience so masterfully.

The other thing that is done nearly flawlessly are the flashback scenes where you learn about each character. The depth of the back stories is amazing. They show scenes that all by themselves would make for a compelling show, rather than just trying to explain why a particular character acted in a particular way on the island. Considering how many different characters get detailed back stories, I can’t even comprehend the talent of the writing staff.

For the vast majority of the cast, the acting is also flawless. There is one notable exception. For us, the star, Matthew Fox, is wooden at best. On rare occasion, he can deliver a scene in a believable manner, but not often.

For me, season two was better than season one (which was excellent). Again, there was an episode or two that didn’t live up to the rest, but nothing like the first few in season one where you just scratched your head wondering if they just lost their way.

So, is it a perfect show? Not even close. In particular, to me, they don’t really know what they want to do with Jack (the Matthew Fox character). Lois got so annoyed at me yelling at the screen “No way he could be that stupid!”. She finally asked me to zip it, and that she got it already.

The writers might respond that it was their exact intention to engage me, but if that’s true, I say hooey! Characters can have a twist, but they should be understandable, and hopefully even explainable. Too many times, he simply appears stupid.

Is it a great show? To me, the answer is an unequivocal yes! We have already ordered season three on DVD, but we won’t get to watch it until mid-January given our crazy schedule. The timing just worked out perfectly for us to plow through two seasons in roughly one week. One of the reasons was unfortunate. Lois was quite sick for the past six days (she’s still sick, but hopefully on the mend), so she didn’t slave away at the computer as much as she otherwise would have) and that made her mellow enough to watch for hours on end.

So, is there a difference between a great show and a perfect one? Of course. Would I ask a rhetorical question if I didn’t have the answer? 😉 To us, Burn Notice is a perfect show. We can’t wait for it to return this coming summer!

On to the extras. On many of the DVD’s, there is a Bonus Features section. In addition, there is a seventh DVD in each season’s package, that is only bonus stuff (behind the scenes, interviews, how certain things were done, etc.).

The vast majority of the bonus features on the bonus DVD are well worth the extra time to watch. For me, who knows zero about how movies are made, it was a blast to see how they do things (including getting the plane on to the island, etc.).

One of the bonus features on the first season DVD was the audition tapes of many of the actors. Interestingly (to me) was watching Matthew Fox read the part of Sawyer (most of the male actors read the Sawyer part to begin with). He was horrible. Even people that could never pull off the current Sawyer from a believability perspective, at least read the parts believably. Fox didn’t. I had already formed my opinion that he played his part weakly, but wondered whether they wanted him to play it that way. Watching the auditions convinced me that he just doesn’t have the talent that the rest of them do.

During season one, we were more interested in not breaking the rhythm of watching the episodes, so we didn’t watch a single bonus track on the non-bonus DVD. However, when we finished the first DVD of season two (four episodes), we decided to watch the bonus feature on that DVD. It was really interesting, but, amazingly, they (I assume accidentally!) gave away a key secret that didn’t get revealed for another two or three episodes! I couldn’t believe it, and now I won’t watch any of the bonus features on a regular DVD until the season is over.

One of the underlying themes in the show is the interconnectedness of the various characters (the six degrees of separation). They do it well. That said, it’s still in the over-the-top phase for me (though I enjoy it thoroughly!), since we don’t yet (even after season two) have a clue as to why it’s all happening.

Lois made an insightful comment last night. We both saw the movie Babel (with Brad Pitt), and thought it was incredibly stupid and poorly done. Of course, it too was themed on interconnectedness and six degrees of separation. She commented last night that Lost achieved this goal whereas Babel failed.

Anyway, while I’ve probably lost every single reader by now, the bottom line is that if you haven’t seen Lost yet, get the DVD’s, and don’t give up before you finish at least the entire first DVD, perhaps even the first two (even if you are tempted!).

Thanks guys, this one really hit the spot, and it’s the gift that keeps on giving, in that it lasted well over a week and will continue when season three arrives! 🙂