TV

The Rundown: The Algorithms Are Boring Me To Death


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The Rundown is a weekly column that highlights some of the biggest, weirdest, and most notable events of the week in entertainment. The number of items will vary, as will the subject matter. It will not always make a ton of sense. Some items might not even be about entertainment, to be honest, or from this week. The important thing is that it’s Friday and we are here to have some fun.

ITEM NUMBER ONE — The robots must be stopped

Okay, time to relax with a nice movie. Maybe a couple episodes of some television show. Let’s open up the old streaming services and see what’s out there tonight.

Hmm. Seen it. Seen it.

[scrolling]

Not interested. Seen it.

[scrolling]

Haven’t seen it but I just watched something like that last night. Seen it. Not interested. Seen it.

[45 minutes later]

Well, too late to start anything now. Time for bed.

Have you done this? God knows I have. A lot. More times than I’m comfortable admitting. Part of it is that I’m picky and indecisive and have to see a lot of things as part of my job, which leaves fewer fresh options to choose from. I’ll admit all of that. A big chunk of this is a Me problem. But the other part of it is that the algorithms are killing me.

Netflix’s algorithm is top-secret, just like the audience data for its shows, but the streaming giant does explain the basics of its process in a page titled “How Netflix’s Recommendation System Works.” The short version goes something like this: using a combination of your viewing habits, the viewing habits of people with “similar tastes and preferences,” and things like the time you watch and device you use, the algorithm spits out a list of recommendations for you on the home page.

Which, fine. I guess that’s as good a place as any to start. The problem with it all is that it’s a real garbage-in, garbage-out situation, and one that can reinforce viewing habits you already have and push you into a corner. “Oh, did you enjoy Air Force One? Here are 50 more movies about airplanes.” I do not want to watch another airplane movie, algorithm. I scratched that itch. I want to switch it up. I’m a well-rounded person with wide-ranging tastes. Show me something new. No, not White House Down. I know I just watched another movie about a president in peril. I just like Harrison Ford. Wait. Dammit. No, I don’t want to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one wants to watch that. Get out of here.

It gets to the point that sometimes I try to trick the algorithm. Like, I’ll click on things I’m not in the mood to watch in the moment and let them run in the background while I work from home, just to shake up my recommendations later. Am I really watching this nature documentary right now? Barely. But I might want to watch some nature documentaries later and I’d like some options. I don’t want to have to search the whole library for them. I just want them on the home screen waiting for me. I thought this was supposed to be the future, dammit.

I’m aware this is madness. I’m behaving like a crazy person. I’m spending a non-zero amount of energy trying to trick a robot into providing me better service. I’ve done this on YouTube, too. I noticed all my recommendations were clips from late-night talk shows and basketball highlights — which are great! — so I started clicking on other things I find interesting and letting them run in a tab off to the side. I have no idea if it works. It probably doesn’t. But it feels like I’m doing something about it. That’s half the battle.

The biggest drawback to this #AlgoLife is that really good, interesting, different things can get lost in the shuffle. Yes, I watch a lot of action movies. Yes, I’m often at some stage of a Parks and Recreation re-watch. But that’s comfort food, the equivalent of eating a big bowl of macaroni and cheese for dinner. Sometimes I’m in the mood to broaden my horizons a bit and it’s getting harder to do that even as the number of options at our fingertips grows by the hour.

Last week in this column, I wrote about Lodge 49. The show had slipped under my radar last year but I ended up ripping through the first season in a five-day binge. I loved it. I still love it. But it never once cracked the front page of my recommendations on Hulu, despite the fact that weirdo burnout shows with a mixture of profound moments and truly wacky comedy are so firmly inside my wheelhouse that they can claim squatter’s rights. The problem is that Lodge 49 didn’t fit with things I watched recently and doesn’t fit in with, like, anything. It is sui generis, unlike other shows on television. How would an algorithm know how to target that? Because if it wasn’t pushed in front me, a person who very much enjoys that kind of thing, then how does it stand a chance without human intervention?

The nice thing is that, now that I found it, it will hopefully train the algorithm a little bit more. The downside is that, once I’m done watching it, I might be in the mood for something else. Which brings us back to the problem I mentioned at the beginning. The scrolling.

And scrolling.

And scrolling.

Do better, robots.

ITEM NUMBER TWO — Let’s get crazy

Marvel

Spider-man is leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe and people are losing their minds about it. A dispute over money will bring Peter Parker and company back to their previous home, Sony, which held the rights to the character before working out a Spidey-share arrangement for a few films to bring him into the Marvel fold. It’s all very complicated and involves percentages and fractions and I absolutely have nothing of value to the conversation, so instead, I’ll just make these two points:

  • It’s fun to picture one side of the negotiation being led by J. Jonah Jameson (“GET ME SPIDER-MAN)
  • It would be kind of cool if movie characters became free agents every few years like players in the NBA

Would this second thing be needlessly complicated and hopelessly unworkable? Well, yeah. Probably. I’m not even sure how we would start. Who would get to make the decisions for each character? It’s not like they’re real people with agency to make real-world decisions, you know? But also, and I think this is important, there’s no reason to let facts get in the way of some nice, pure fun. So, let’s not do that. Let’s just run wild for a minute.

The example I tossed out when I first had the idea was Lionsgate signing Hulk away from Marvel and putting him in John Wick, but there are so many other fun ways this could go. Thanos in the Fast & Furious franchise is one idea. Or like what if Mission: Impossible loses Ethan Hunt to a Star Wars megadeal and so they panic and sign Paddington Bear to fill that empty spot. That week of NBA free agency this summer, starting a few days before the floodgates opened and continuing through a few days after, was one of the wildest sports weeks I’ve ever seen. I see no reason we can’t extend it to other areas of life.

It would be total chaos. Just outright anarchy. Comic-Con would turn into a mad scramble of tampering and secret negotiations and the Hollywood trades would be filled with borderline baseless NBA-style speculation like “I’m hearing reports that James Cameron is working on a three-way deal to bring Forky from Toy Story 4 to the Avatar universe.” I would enjoy this even if no one else would. Is that what’s important here? My enjoyment? I think so.

ITEM NUMBER THREE — Oh oh, here she comes…

Netflix

I’m in hell and I’m bringing the rest of you with me.

Way back when season one of Mindhunter dropped, my brain — a normal, regular brain, as we’ve seen from the first two sections of this column — discovered that you could sing “Maneater” by Hall & Oates with the word “Mindhunter” in place of the title.

Oh oh, here they come
Watch out boy, they’ll hunt your mind
Oh oh, here they come
They’re the Mindhunters

You can see my dilemma. That’s probably in your head after reading that, too. It lives there now. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. (I’m not sorry.) It was all the way out of my head until Thrillist’s Emma Stefansky tweeted this week that it works to the theme from Goldfinger, too. It’s back now, in addition to about a dozen others that people tweeted at me when I brought it up. My colleague Vince Mancini should either be crowned King of America or sent to jail forever.

Please try to avoid doing this, this replacing song lyrics with the word “Mindhunter.” It will take over your life. It’s all you’ll be able to think about once you get started and even a simple thing like a trip the pharmacy can trigger it. You’ll go in to grab some Tums or pick a prescription for foot fungus and hear a classic banger being pumped in through the system and next thing you know it’ll be two weeks later and someone in the elevator with you will catch you singing “Can’t nobody hunt-a my mind, can’t nobody slow me down, oh no, I got to keep on moving.” Then you’ll have to find a whole new doctor to look at the foot fungus. Can’t risk running into that person ever again.

Please. I’m trying to help.

ITEM NUMBER FOUR — Yeah, I agree, do it

When we last checked in with actress and national treasure Jackee Harry, she was tweeting out a story that opened with the phrase “Eartha Kitt slapped the shit out of me.” It was a good tweet. I don’t know if this one tops it (how could anything?), but it’s still pretty great. A few thoughts.

  • Mahershala Ali is playing Blade because he called up Marvel after winning a second Oscar and said “I want to play Blade.” Now Jackee is trying it. I hope this is how everyone in the movie gets cast. In fact, let me put this out into the universe, too, just in case: CAST ME IN BLADE, I WILL DO A GOOD JOB
  • I really like that she quote-tweeted a month-old tweet
  • Do it. Cast Jackee in Blade. I didn’t know I wanted it before she tweeted this but now I am all in

I mean, she makes some solid points.

It’s settled.

ITEM NUMBER FIVE — A periodic reminder

This weekend is D23, the big fancy Disney event where all the Mouse’s properties jumble together into a nice IP gumbo. It is also a very thin but still sufficient Star Wars-related excuse for me to remind everyone of a top ten moment in the history of podcasting: the “What’s its mission?” clip from How Did This Get Made? It’s beautiful in a lot of ways and I kind of don’t want to ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it yet. Just know two things: One, June Diane Raphael, the woman responsible for the “What its mission?” statement in question, is an icon in the podcast industry and we should respect her as such (see also, “what, exactly, is a Street Fighter?”); two, the resulting wheezelaugh from co-host Jason Mantzoukas is captivating listening. It almost sounds like he’s dying. And it’s his normal laugh. That’s just how he laughs when he really gets going. You could power an entire big city subway system with the power harnessed by the joy this brings me.

READER MAIL

If you have questions about television, movies, food, local news, weather, or, like, whatever you want, shoot them to me on Twitter or at brian.grubb@uproxx.com (put “RUNDOWN” in the subject line). I am the first writer to ever answer reader mail in a column. Do not look up this last part.

Amanda:

I know you can’t follow everything, but I feel you might want to know that there is an absolutely bonkers show out there that you should probably re-visit if you get a chance. That show is Yellowstone on the Paramount network. You have probably written it off. I did at first, despite its strong central performance by Kevin Costner. It definitely started slow and has a lot of elements about land wars and casinos that I can’t follow. But it is NUTS. Everyone on this show is a sociopathic murderer, except Costner’s daughter-in-law and young grandson and I fully expect them to kill soon.

Its second season alone has featured the following:

1. Kelly Reilly’s character telling someone to “get your waxed a–hole out of my office” (he was a potential client of some sort, and her employer just smirked at her and shook his head as if to say “You are one wacky gal!” I am not sure what business they’re in, but they aren’t great at it.)
2. Neal McDonough as a villain whose office is completely decorated with taxidermied exotic animals, including a rhino head he seems to use as a hat rack.
3. Cole Hauser and Reilly having what is supposed to be a romantic moment on a rooftop, in which, among other things, Hauser talks in great detail about his family members’ head stones.
4. A huge sweeping wide shot of dead, poisoned cattle.
5. Two corpses tied together on someone’s porch as a warning
6. Did I mention the rhino head?

It is, for real, one of the most insane shows on TV.

I mean… wow. That really is something. Both in regards to the show and this email, which is staggeringly good. More emails like this one, please. Or at least more that contain the phrase “rhino head” multiple times.

Anyway, I don’t know, Amanda. There really is a lot of television out there and so few hours in the day. Maybe if it had a character with a fun name. That would help. Like if Costner’s character were named Rick Yellowstone, or if there was a supporting character named something along the lines of Frank Tokyo, or Rip Wheeler, or, say, Pluto Jupiter. Something like that might help sway me.

Yesterday I sent you an email extolling the benefits of the Paramount series Yellowstone, and made a rather serious omission. I forgot to mention that Cole Hauser plays a character named Rip Wheeler. I feel like that is a piece of information you would want to have. I regret the earlier oversight.

Ahhh. Okay, fine. It’s settled. I will revisit Yellowstone.

AND NOW, THE NEWS

To West Palm Beach!

The Casimanos, a young couple from New York with a 2-year-old, bought at the Ibis Golf and Country Club in April, looking forward to using it for vacations.

The spacious $702,000 home on Wildcat Run featured three bedrooms, a screen-enclosed pool and a three-quarter-acre lot overlooking a natural area near the Everglades-like Grassy Waters Preserve.

Hey, good for the Casimanos. As long as the next blockquote doesn’t start with a phrase like “the problem,” we have a nice story on our hands for onc-

The problem: Dozens, if not hundreds, of black vultures have taken over the yard and others, torn apart screened enclosures and made pools, patios and barbecues their own. The Casimanos, when in town, have to garage their car or the birds encircle it and dent it with their beaks, she said.

The birds go for regular feedings in the neighbor’s yard, then roost on and around surrounding houses, Casimano said.

“The vultures just vomit everywhere,” she said. “Defecating and vomiting. It’s just gross. We can’t even go back down to the house.”

Well… that’s not particularly ideal. Imagine buying a house and being squeezed out of it by vultures that are pooping and puking all over the place. Imagine trying to turn around and sell it. Imagine the realtor trying to gently dance around the fact that the house is surrounded by puke-crazed vultures. Imagine if it’s the Mom Energy realtor from John Mulane’s Comeback Kid special. (“This is a vomit-covered gazebo that has vultures circling it all day like a sign from Satan himself. Could be a nursery…”) Like I said, not ideal.

Down the street, neighbor Cheryl Katz says she has it worse, because she lives next to the lady who feeds the birds.

Now hold on, Cheryl. You have it worse than the people who described the smell of their property as “like a thousand rotting corpses”? I find that hard to believe. I find that pretty, pretty hard to belie-

In May, 20 vultures tore into Katz’ pool enclosure, couldn’t figure out how to get out and attacked each other in a panicked frenzy.

“Imagine 20 large vultures trapped, biting each other – and they can bite through bones,” she said. “They would bang against my windows running away from a bird that was attacking them. Blood was everywhere. It was a vile, vicious, traumatic event. And it was Memorial Day, so no company I called would come out to help me.”

Cheryl, I’m so sorry I doubted you.

Please do go read the rest of this article, if only to discover the suspected reason for the vulture infestation. If you think you have a weird neighbor, buddy…

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