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Archive for February, 2011

Why I like Crime Shows

One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I love crime shows for a number of reasons.

First, I really enjoy being frightened, and crime shows offer the types of situations that I find scary. I don’t usually find horror movies scary because they are too fantastic and I cannot really picture any ghosts, zombies, or ghouls attacking me or any one I know and care about. But if a director combines spine-tingling music with a realistic threat posed by a (human) stranger, acquaintance or  loved one, I am drawn in. I can imagine myself or someone I love in this kind of danger.

Second, I  really like trying to solve puzzles, and crime shows sometimes offer a puzzle to be solved: who among the characters presented is guilty of the crime? I love foreshadowing when it is done well so that it does not immediately give away the culprit on the first viewing, but when watching the episode a second time one can identify the clues that identify the criminal.

Finally, I like shows that are morally complex. I don’t like shows that have clear “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead, I prefer shows that examine the complexities of criminality and look at how structural elements of particular societies work to criminalize some behaviours while excusing others (for example, see this YouTube video featuring Angela Davis on Prisons or Michael Moore’s satirical take on a Cop show about Corporate criminals).

In particular, if a show deals with the kinds of structural relations discussed by feminists, then I will love it. Most TV shows don’t meet this standard. The only TV show that does meet this standard that I can readily call to mind is The Wire. Although this feature of narratives is probably the one that I would rank most highly in terms of importance (it would override the other two criteria if ever it were present), so few TV shows meet this standard that I tend to overlook it when deciding whether a show is worth watching. I apply this standard very loosely, if at all.

These three elements that I like in crime shows create a means of ranking crime shows that usually corresponds to how much I like them. First, the situations have to be realistic and second, they cannot give away the criminal’s identity too quickly. Finally, for (overriding) bonus points, the show should be morally complex and should not explain all criminal behaviour in terms of “bad” types of persons. Most crime shows vary along these dimensions from episode to episode, and also trends in this variation can be identified over time.

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Almost nobody likes commercials. Since technologies such as VCRs, DVRs and TiVo are now available, many people prerecord TV shows and skip through the commercials. So marketers and advertisers are trying to come up with commercials that we are willing to watch, or that we cannot get around watching (for example, because they are part of the TV show itself). I am not usually a fan of commercials; I usually only watch prerecorded TV precisely because I can skip the ads.

The Box Art for LittleBigPlanet2

But last night, I was playing LittleBigPlanet2 and I ended up playing a commercial for the Prius (Part 2 of the level is here). The level is published by “LittleBigPartner” and is described as:

Join Sackboy* as he solves puzzles in his treehouse and takes his Prius for a drive in the city. With the objects you collect here, create your own Prius-inspired level for a chance to win a Sony Bravia 3D HDTV and other prizes. Visit http://www.us.playstation.com/psn/events/littlebigprius.html for more details. NOTE: Name your contest levels “Prius_[Your Level Name]” in order to enter.

The contest has been pretty popular, and there are now a number of Priusthemed user-made levels. From a marketing perspective, this is probably a great campaign. It encourages people to spend a lot of time thinking about the Prius and how to use it in a level they are creating. The Prius car, and various other objects (like wind turbines, and so forth) are given away in the level, and users are encouraged to use “as many of the collected objects as possible” (at 0:59) in their own levels. This allows Toyota a degree of control over the kinds of messages that users create in their levels. The objects that are given away are all associated with environmental themes and alternative energy sources.  If a user incorporates these objects, there is a good chance that the level will end up with a theme that associates the Prius and environmentalism.

Since LBP2 includes the user “LittleBigPartner” I am quite sure that there will be many more of these commercial levels in the future. Perhaps this is a good marketing strategy, for the reasons I described above, but I found it really off-putting. First, I was annoyed because I found the level through the “Media Molecule Picks” and in the past Media Molecule had always featured levels made by regular players, rather than advertisement levels. I felt tricked when I played this level, because I expected a user level, but instead got an advertisement. Second, the contest feels more insidious that previous contests. Both LittleBigPlanetCentral and LittleBigLand have held contests in the past, but these contests did not promote a particular product. This contest seems to be piggy-backing on the work done by previous competitions in the LittleBigPlanet game-universe.

*Note the use of the “universal” or “gender-neutral” “he” and “Sackboy,” which I complained about before.

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A picture of the Cast of Law and Order: SVU

[Trigger Warning for discussions of violence against women and rape.]

One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I explain why I like crime shows in this post, but I am also aware that crime shows have a number of problematic elements. Crime shows are often problematic because of the way they portray, and sometimes sensationalize, violence.

As it is with many topics, feminists have offered a number of views about the use of violence against women as a form of entertainment. Some feminists object to Law and Order: SVU because it sensationalizes violence against women, depoliticizes rape, and paints female victims as liars. Other feminists claim that SVU might have some problematic aspects, but also some redeeming qualities, such as detectives expressing the belief that no woman deserves to be raped. Still other feminists have describe their reaction to SVU as one of ambivalence caused by its mix of progressive and regressive elements.

I recently noticed one episode of Law and Order: SVU that passes the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is named for Alison Bechdel who writes the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is supposed to provide a metric for the development of female characters in a film, TV show or other story. To pass, a film must meet the following criteria:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man.

[SPOILER ALERT: Below the fold I discuss the Law and Order: SVU episode “Dirty” (Season 12, Episode 14) and give away the ending]

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Yesterday in the USA, Federal Judge Roger Vinson ruled that the individual mandate was unconstitutional (the whole opinion is here), and so ruled the entire health care law is void:

Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void. This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications. At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” (pg. 76)

One thing raised in the ruling is whether the individual mandate is unprecedented:

Congressional Budget Office Memorandum, The Budgetary Treatment of an Individual Mandate to Buy Health Insurance, August 1994 (“A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action.”) (“CBO Analysis”). Never before has Congress required that everyone buy a product from a private company (essentially for life) just for being alive and residing in the United States. (pg. 38)

Judge Roger Vinson rightly notes that the mere fact that a law is unprecedented does not necessarily mean that it is unconstitutional, but, he writes,  a lack of previous similar legislation might nevertheless count against the presumption that a law is constitutional:

As I explained in my earlier order, the fact that legislation is unprecedented does not by itself render it unconstitutional. To the contrary, all federal legislation carries with it a “presumption of constitutionality.” Morrison, supra, 529 U.S. at607. However, the presumption is arguably weakened, and an “absence of power” might reasonably be inferred where — as here — “earlier Congresses avoided use of this highly attractive power.” Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 905, 908,117 S. Ct. 2365, 138 L. Ed. 2d 914 (1997); id. at 907-08 (“the utter lack of statutes imposing obligations [like the one at issue in that case] (notwithstanding the attractiveness of that course to Congress), suggests an assumed absence of such power”) (emphasis in original); id. at 918 (“almost two centuries of apparent congressional avoidance of the practice [at issue] tends to negate the existence of the congressional power asserted here”).

The mere fact that the defendants have tried to analogize the individual mandate to things like jury service, participation in the census, eminent domain proceedings, forced exchange of gold bullion for paper currency under the Gold Clause Cases, and required service in a “posse” under the Judiciary Act of 1789 (all of which are obviously distinguishable) only underscores and highlights its unprecedented nature.  (pg. 39)

Does that mean that if there were a previous law that imposed similar obligations, then the presumption that the law is constitutional would be strengthened?

Because Rick Ungar uncovered a precedent from 1798 “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” Ungar writes:

In July of 1798, Congress passed – and President John Adams signed – “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

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