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8 TV Shows That Were Creatively Altered by a Writers Strike

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Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Writers strikes have a major impact on TV and film production. Depending on the strike’s length, dozens of film and TV projects can be suspended, delayed, or even cancelled, and rebounding when a strike is over isn’t exactly easy, either.

Numerous TV series have had to return from strike to a kind of creative reboot, from rewriting single episodes to devising entirely new finales. With another strike potentially on the horizon, we’re looking back at eight shows that changed course due to a strike.

1. BREAKING BAD

An enduring legend about Breaking Bad sprung up around the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. According to that version of events, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was originally set to be killed off by the show’s writers, but when the strike occurred and forced the show to cut its first season from nine to seven episodes, some hard thinking about the show’s structure led to the decision to keep Pinkman around. It turns out that’s only partially true, as creator Vince Gilligan has since noted that he’d decided not to let Paul go by the second episode of the show. The strike did fundamentally alter the show’s overall plot progression, though.

Those final two episodes in season one would have originally given us two fast-paced hours in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) would have very quickly become the drug kingpin known as Heisenberg. With the strike standing in the way of that, Gilligan and company threw those episodes out and took a more careful approach to bringing out Heisenberg. That meant a slower pace, but an awesome three-episode arc to kick off the second season.

2. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION

The 1988 Writers Guild of America strike was the longest in the organization’s history, and its long run cut into the production of a number of series, among them the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As a result of the strike’s duration, the season order was shortened from 26 episodes to 22, and with a shorter production window, the show went looking for script sources beyond the standard writers room. As a result, the season premiere episode “The Child” was adapted from a script originally written for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II TV series in the late 1970s. Producers also began mining the “slush pile” of submitted spec scripts from outside writers and found “The Measure of a Man,” by attorney-turned-writer Melinda M. Snodgrass. The script became the ninth episode of the season, and Snodgrass was hired as the show’s story editor.

3. HEROES

After starting off red hot with huge ratings and critical acclaim, the second season of the comic book-inspired NBC series Heroes suffered a ratings decline and attacks from fans due to new characters that took time away from the old ones, a time travel storyline that seemed to drag on too long, and romances that pulled attention way from the show’s super-powered action. It got so bad that creator Tim Kring admitted mistakes in an Entertainment Weekly interview. But the writers strike offered Kring and company a chance to rethink and restructure.

The strike limited the show’s second season to just 11 episodes, and sensing that a change needed to come, Kring reshot the ending of that season’s eventual finale, ”Powerless,” in order to scrap a planned plague storyline that would have made up season two’s second half. The planned fourth “volume” of the series, “Villains,” became the third, and the show carried on for two more seasons.

4. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

The hit sci-fi series only had one episode of its final “Season 4.5” run completed when the 2007-08 strike hit, and the situation felt so dire at the time that the cast was convinced during filming that said episode—“Sometimes A Great Notion”—would be the show’s last. The series did return to produce 10 more hours to end its run, and, like Heroes, the strike actually gave creator Ronald D. Moore a chance to rethink the planned ending of the show.

“There was a different ending that we had, it was all about Ellen aboard the Colony,” Moore told io9. “She was sort of turned by Cavil, because she found out that Tigh had impregnated Caprica Six, and that deeply embittered her. And she sort of became dedicated to the idea of destroying Galactica and the fleet out of revenge. And [she and Cavil] got Hera, and then the final confrontation became very personalized between Tigh versus Ellen, and should they forgive.”

“That was the story, generally speaking. We didn't have a lot more than just what I spun out to you, when the writer's strike hit. Over the course of the writer's strike, I rethought about it and thought, ‘That's not going to do it. It's not epic enough. It's not interesting enough.’ That's when we decided to start over, and reinvent the last arc of the show.”

Moore and his writers ultimately devised a different series finale, featuring the daring rescue of Hera Agathon and the discovery of our prehistoric Earth.

5. PUSHING DAISIES

Pushing Daisies/Facebook

When it premiered in the fall of 2007, Bryan Fuller’s inventive fantasy series was hailed as one of the most original new shows on TV, and developed a rabid fan base eager to learn more about the love story between the Pie Maker (Lee Pace) and the Dead Girl (Anna Friel). Initial enthusiasm for the series led to a full season order in October 2007, just weeks before a writers strike was declared. This meant that the series had to halt production with only nine of its 22 ordered episodes completed. Fuller rewrote episode nine to serve as a season finale, leaving lots of loose ends to entice viewers back. It worked. Pushing Daisies got a second season, but unfortunately didn’t get a third.

6. SCRUBS

The 2007-08 strike interrupted production of the NBC medical sitcom, leaving it hanging in the midst of what was, at the time, expected to be its final season. Creator Bill Lawrence was offered the chance to film an alternate final episode to serve as a series finale should the strike limit the seventh season, but Lawrence declined, hoping he would eventually get to do things his way. When the strike ended, the future of Scrubs was still uncertain. Season seven ended at just 11 episodes, but the show continued to shoot episodes for season eight even as it no longer officially had a network. Ultimately, ABC picked up the series for an eighth season in the spring of 2008, and Scrubs finished its run on that network after a ninth season featuring new lead characters was also produced.

7. 30 ROCK

Tina Fey’s Emmy-winning comedy shut down production during the 2007-08 strike, but the biggest creative consequence of that break wasn’t felt until 2010. While the show was shut down in early 2008, the cast performed a live episode as a benefit at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. When the strike ended and production resumed, creator Tina Fey and co-showrunner Robert Carlock began having serious discussions with NBC about a live episode broadcast. Though it was originally planned for season four, the episode was rescheduled for season five. Titled “Live Show,” it was finally performed (twice, once for the east coast and once for the west) on October 14, 2010.

8. DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the musical webseries from Joss Whedon, wasn’t so much altered by the 2007-08 strike as it was born out of it. Whedon conceived the series, which he calls his “midlife crisis,” during the strike, and actually first mentioned it to co-star Felicia Day on the WGA picket line.

“I asked if you’d seen The Guild. You didn’t have to say anything! But you said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw it and loved it,'” Day recalled in 2015. “You said ‘I’m actually working on a supervillain musical’ and I pooped myself. Later I got an email that was just, ‘Can you sing?’ Signed, ‘J.’ Then I pooped again.”

Whedon financed the series himself, and it was produced in just five months. Today, it remains an early example of the reach and profitability of web-distributed programming.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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