Friday, October 26, 2007



Serial killers have had it fairly good in movies. Norman Bates managed to star in four major feature films (not counting a crappy remake of the original and a TV movie). Dr. Hannibal Lecter has had an even better career in film, starring in five different movies. But on television serial killers have never had it very good. At best they can only hope for the occasional TV movie or miniseries, or perhaps a guest appearance on one of the Law and Order or CSI series. That is, until now.

Of course, there is a very simple for this. Serial killers are not exactly sympathetic characters. For all that we might enjoy watching movies featuring the likes of Bates and Lecter, ultimately we still regard them as villains (at least I hope that most of us do). After all, murder is one of the greatest crimes known to man, and committing a series of them marks one as the ultimate evil. It would seem, however, that Showtime's series Dexter has found a way around this. Yes, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, but he not quite like any other to ever appear in film or television. You see, Dexter kills other serial killers...

Michael C. Hall plays Dexter, a police forensics specialist with an unusual pastime. Dexter hunts (and ultimately kills) serial killers he believes have escaped justice. He conducts his life according to what he calls the Code of Harry, the code of his foster father (a well regarded police officer) who reasoned that there are those who deserve to die and directed his foster son's homicidal tendencies towards those with, well, their own homicidal tendencies. To this end Dexter only kills those who have murdered more than once, those serial murderers who have escaped justice. In one episode he even passes up a chance to kill a defenceless innocent for precisely that reason--the man was innocent and it would be wrong to kill him. To a large degree this makes Dexter a sympathetic character. After all, I rather suspect most of us have longed to see serial killers and mass murderers from Ted Bundy to Charles Manson get "what they deserve." It is hard not to root for Dexter as he stalks and, in the end, kills his latest, inhuman quarry.

While we might sympathise with Dexter in his pursuit of those who have escaped the long arm of the law, there is much about Dexter that is disquieting. He is so detached that he hardly feels anything. One gets the feeling that he really does love his foster sister Debra and his girlfriend Rita (although that love is hardly romantic by any stretch of the imagination), he does not know how to express that love. Such ordinary human activities as hanging out with friends, birthday parties, and even sex puzzle Dexter. What is worse, while the ordinary person would express some distaste at even killing the likes of Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, Dexter actually enjoys his homicidal hobby--from stalking his prey to ultimately killing them (usually very slowly....).

In many respects Dexter is very much a one man show. The series simply would not work without the talent of Michael C. Hall. Hall is all too perfect as Dexter, a man at home flaying the body of a mass murderer, but out of place in a bar. One of the best things about the series is Hall narrating Dexter's internal monologue, in which he reveals his thoughts about his life and life in general. While Dexter is to some degree a one man show, it features one of the best ensembles on television. Erik King delivers a very good performance as the gruff Sgt. Doakes, the one man on the police force who doesn't admire Dexter's brilliance in forensics (indeed, he often calls Dexter "sicko"). David Zayas also gives a good performance as Angel Batista, the detective who not only admires Dexter's skill in forensics, but considers Dexter a friend. Perhaps the best actor in the cast besides Hall is Julie Benz as Dexter's girlfriend Rita. Utterly ordinary in every respect (although hardly unattractive, she is no beauty queen either), Benz makes Rita a very realistic and sympathetic character as a woman who hardly suspects that her boyfriend regularly slices up serial killers.

Dexter is an intelligently written series that opens up some interesting questions about morality. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves whether Dexter is actually better than other serial killers because he kills those who have murdered repeatedly and escaped justice. Does the fact that he actually enjoys his murderous activities make any difference? Does it make him a less moral or ethical person than those of us who do not kill, for any reason? These are questions that I suspect only those who are steadfastly against any sort of killing would have difficulty answering. And they are questions that only a well executed, well written, and well performed series such as Dexter would dare to ask.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Brand Loyalty

The American Heritage Dictionary defines brand as " kind, grade, or make, as indicated by a stamp, trademark, or the like: the best brand of coffee." Whatis.Com defines brand as "a product, service, or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, or concepts so that it can be easily communicated and usually marketed." Advertising legend David Ogilvy defined brand as "The intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it's advertised."

However one defines the word brand, it is safe to say that they have been around for some time. In ancient Rome the businesses had names, just as businesses do now (even brothels advertised their names on signs). In medieval and renaissance England, inns had names like The Pig and Whistle and The Frog and Nightgown. But it was not until the introduction of packaged goods in the 18th and 19th centuries that branding really took off. Industrialisation made the mass production of goods ranging from soap to textiles possible. Manufacturing companies would literally brand their logos into the crates or barrels in which these goods were transported (hence, the word brand). Brands served much the same purpose that the names of shops in Rome and the names of inns in medieval England served--to create product recogition in the general public. To give one an idea of how early branding started taking place in the Industrial Revolution, consider that Pear's Soap, first sold in 1789, is believed to be the world's first brand to have been trademarked. As the 19th century progressed and more products were mass produced, more brands came into being. Many of them are still with us today: Coca-Cola, Quaker Oats, and Wrigley's Spearmint gum. By 1900 branding was a well established practice; it was that year that J. Walter Thompson published a house ad explaining the practice.

Of course, with the creation of brands there also arose the concept of brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is quite simply the marked preference of any given consumer to buy one particular brand over other brands. I am sure all of us know at least one person (probably more) who prefers Ford automobiles over Chevys or Coca-Cola over Pepsi. Indeed, often brand loyalty in such individuals may be so intense that it takes the form of outright zealotry. That having been said, I think brand loyalty (at least of the more extreme sort) exists only with regards to certain products. After all, there are many, many brands of soap on the market, but one does not hear individuals preaching the superiority of one brand of soap over others or wearing the logo of a particular brand of soap on his jacket. While people do not seem overzealous in their loyalty to a particular brand of soap, however, there are other brands of products about which they might be downright fanatical.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with regards to automobiles. Indeed, car owners can declare their loyalty to any one of the major automotive makers with a large array of merchandise, from key chains to t-shirts. Not being a collector of automotive memorabilia, I am not sure when such merchandise was first introduced, but it has been around for as long as I can remember. Of course, brand loyalty among car owners goes far beyond buying merchandise bearing the logos of their favourite brands. Among some people can actually take the form of fanaticism. In fact, I rather suspect more arguments have been started over which is better, Ford or Chevy, than arguments over which is the better political party, Democratic or Republican. When it comes to cars, I must admit that I am as guilty as anyone of brand loyalty. My father generally drove Fords (although he had no brand loyalty to them--our cattle truck was an old Chevrolet...), but I grew up to be a Chrysler man. In fact, my favourite car among those I've driven was a Plymouth Valiant. Of course, I have never been vehement about the superiority of Chryslers over Fords. As to the superiority of Chryslers over Chevys, well, I think just about anything is superior to a Chevy. The worst car I ever drove was a Chevrolet Impala--it spent more time in the shop than on the road...

I am not sure the sort of brand loyalty that exists among car owners quite exists elsewhere, although if it does it might be among soda drinkers. And just as car drivers can proclaim their brand loyalty through various merchandise, so too can soda drinkers. Soft drink merchandising has existed for some time--the first of the many famous Coca-Cola serving trays was made all the way back in 1897. Since then there have been glasses, cups, coolers, clocks, calenders, and so on. And while soda drinkers are not quite as inclined to argue over the superiority of Coke over Pepsi the way car drivers might argue over the superiority of Ford over Chevy, they can quite vehement in their preferences in what they drink. Many Coke drinkers (myself included) will refuse to drink Pepsi unless they absolutely have to (and even then, we don't enjoy it). The same generally holds true of devoted Pepsi drinker with regards to Coke. Perhaps no better example of brand loyalty can be found than the debacle known as "New Coke." In 1985 Coca-Cola Company replaced its famous drink with a sweeter imposter. The reaction from devoted Coca-Cola drinkers was outright rage that their drink of choice might be replaced by a drink that, well, tasted a lot like Pepsi. Many devoted Coke drinkers, myself included, began hoarding Coca-Cola. We also deluged Coca-Cola Company with demands that they bring the original (and as far as many of were concerned, the only) Coca-Cola back. Less than three months after New Coke had been introduced, Coca-Cola Company resumed manufacturing the one and only, original Coca-Cola. As to New Coke, well, it would eventually fade away. Coca-Cola Company stopped manufacturing it in 2002.

Fanatical, brand loyalty is not only to be found among car drivers and soda drinkers, but also among cigarette smokers. Anyone who knows a smoker probably also knows that smoker has his or her favourite brand, which they almost always buy. Pall Mall smokers will only begrudgingly smoke Marlboros. Winston smokers will rarely buy packs of Pall Malls. The health concerns over smoking have largely curtailed much of the merchandising connected with the habit, but over the years there have been thousands of promotional products emblazoned with the logos of cigarette brands, from ashtrays to calenders. The brand loyalty of smokers may best be illustrated by a slogan used for Tareyton cigarettes in the Sixties: "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!"

Brand loyalty also existed to some degree in comic book fandom. From the Sixties until recently, comic books fans could be divided into DC fans and Marvel fans. Most of us read comic books from both companies, but most of us favoured one company over another. And many were downright fanatical in their devotion to one company or another. DC fans might point to the company's long history and its roster of legendary characters. Marvel fans (at least in the Sixties) might point to the quality of that company's writing and art. I always tended to favour DC myself, although I also read and loved Marvel as well. For me it came down to the characters. Batman and Green Lantern (Alan Scott, not Hal Jordan) have always been my favourite superheroes. And they belonged to DC.

Where there is a product or service, there is going to be brand loyalty. And with some products or services that brand loyalty may verge on fanaticism. I have no doubt there are people who are fanatical in their devotion to Nike, people who would use no other stereo than Pioneer, and folks whose love for Hewlett-Packard is unmatched. To a degree I think brand loyalty evolves simply out of people's pleasant experiences with various products. I have had very pleasant experiences with Chryslers and unpleasant experiences with Chevys, so I am loyal to Chrysler. I have always preferred the taste of Coke over Pepsi, so I drink Coke regularly. People become loyal to brands because they have had good experiences with those brands over the years.

That having been said, I think there could be another dimension to brand loyalty. Quite simply, it is a means of bonding with other people. Two strangers might meet and find they have little to talk about until one of them notices the other is drinking Coke. From there they have a link and they can strike up a conversation. To a small degree brand loyalty links to others who are also loyal to a particular brand. Indeed, there are clubs devoted to collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia, Studebaker cars, and so on. In a consumerist society, strangely enough, brand loyalty is something which can bring people together.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Law and Order...24 Hours a Day

My sister and I have a running joke that our brother watches nothing but Law and Order and that he watches it all day long. The joke is a bit of exaggeration, but the truth is that it is not that much of an exaggeration. Law and Order and its spinoffs do air an inordinate amount of time during the day and on several different channels at that.

Consider this. Law and Order airs up to six times a day on TNT and airs most days of the week on that channel. Its spinoff, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, airs up to three times a day on the USA Network, sometimes more, and also airs most days of the week. Law and Order: Criminal Intent also airs up to three times a day on the USA Network, on several days of the week. Both TNT and the USA Network show marathons of Law and Order, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. None of this is counting the new episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit airing on NBC, the new episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent airing on the USA Network, or the new episodes of Law and Order that will air on NBC later this season. Nor is it counting the local stations on which those shows might air (for instance, here KZOU shows Law and Order: Criminal Intent). Of course, there are other shows that air frequently on other cable channels (CSI : Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoffs are an example--airing on both Spike and A&E), but I swear that Law and Order and its spinoffs air even more than CSI does.

As to why TNT and the USA Network show the series in the Law and Order franchise so often, I would guess that there are some very basic reasons. The first is that the Law and Order series are still popular. Never mind that the original Law and Order was almost cancelled last season and that Law and Order: Criminal Intent moved from NBC to the USA Network. Reruns of the shows still do very well in the ratings. Regardless of how they perform on NBC in primetime, the Law and Order shows still have a loyal following.

The second reason is that the original Law and Order has run so long. Law and Order is currently the longest running network drama series, second only to Gunsmoke. As of now it has run 17 years, with 393 episodes. This means that a cable channel or local TV channel, even running the show several times a day, could show the series without repeating an episode for quite some time. Indeed, if a station just showed Law and Order five times a week, it would take nearly a year and a half to show the entire series. Its spinoffs have had good runs as well. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has currently run for eight seasons. Law and Order: Criminal Intent has run for a total of six seasons. In both instances, a cable channel or local station could show either series for quite some time without repeating episodes. The long runs of the shows in the Law and Order franchise makes them very attractive to programmers, who generally prefer series that they can show with a minimum of repetition.

The third reason is purely a matter of my opinion. Quite frankly, there have not been too many good, hour long dramas on the networks that have had long runs. As far as I am concerned, ER jumped the shark sometime after its fifth season. The shows in the CSI franchise have generally been good, but they have not ran nearly that long. The same holds true for Gilmore Girls There have been some very good genre shows in the past many years, such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Alias, but they generally become fodder for local stations on Saturday night. I would guess this makes them less attractive to cable channels, who won't necessarily want to repeat a show that many,many local stations are showing. The shows in the Law and Order franchise have the advantage of being quality series and having had long runs. They are certainly better than much of what airs on network television.

The fourth reason goes hand in hand with the third reason. It seems to me that beginning in the mid-Nineties the cable channels sought out newer and newer shows to fill their schedules. Prior to that time it was not unusual to see shows made in the Fifties and Sixties on the various cable channels: Perry Mason, The Wild Wild West, The Avengers, Bonanza, and so on. Around the mid-Nineties, however, all of this changed. The cable channels started showing series that the networks had recently cancelled or were still running on the networks. Shows like ER and Law and Order began to push out the older shows. The problem is that there are fewer, quality new shows than there are good, older shows (let's face it, it is easier to find good shows when one uses the whole history of television as opposed to the last ten years). As a result, the cable channels will natural tend to show the popular, quality shows over and over again. This is why TNT and the USA Network show the Law and Order series so much and why A&E and Spike show the CSI series too much.

As to whether this is a good thing or not, I submit this is a matter of opinion. I love the Law and Order series myself (particularly Law and Order: Criminal Intent), although I don't want to watch them all the time. Personally, rather than showing Law and Order and its spinoffs constantly, I would rather TNT and the USA Network pick up some of the older shows. I honestly think that shows like Kung Fu, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Peter Gunn still have an audience. At any rate, they would certainly be a change of pace.