Category Archives: Television

Cavalcade of Stupidity

Thursday night, I was watching NBC Nightly News:

  • Federal regulators are contemplating changing the rules to enable passengers on airlines to use their cell phones during the flight.  The practical answer is that as long as cell phone use doesn’t affect the safety of the flight, and doesn’t interfere with the operation of the cell networks on the ground, it should be OK.  But the news report was full of angst over the possibility of having to listen to one’s seat mate yakking nonstop from coast to coast.  Get over it: Amtrak and the commuter railroads have successfully dealt with this for years.  We used to have smoking and non-smoking sections on planes; it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to have yakking and non-yakking sections.  It’s a problem for the airlines to solve, not the government.
  • A 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas.  The Dreamlifter is an oversized aircraft used to transport components of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and other large airplanes.  You’d think that the pilots of the Dreamliner would be able to tell which airport is which.
  • The Senate Democrats changed the rules to allow nominations for most judges and other Presidential nominees to pass on a simple majority vote: the Republicans were denied the ability to filibuster the nomination.  While this may not be a big deal in itself, it upsets the balance of the Senate, and opens the door to bolder rule changes in the future.
  • The Administration was pushing back against reports that American troops could remain in Afghanistan for another ten years.  The Afghan government held debates on this arrangement.  The Afghan President assured the assembly that the Americans wouldn’t be involved in combat missions anymore.  (How would he know that?)  OK, we had bases in Europe after World War II (and indeed still do).  But is a presence in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, really necessary?  And then our President promised that the Americans would:

…make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes… just as we do for our own citizens.

You mean like the NSA?

  • An elderly veteran of the Korean War fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting North Korea.  He went there for a 9-day tour, and was arrested on the plane that would have taken him homeward.  The last time I checked, the Korean War had not yet ended.  For a Korean War soldier to go back to North Korea would seem most unwise.
  • The Dow Jones Industrials closed over 16,000 for the first time ever, an all-time high.  The pluffing of the stock market continues, without any real productivity underneath.
  • The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce ran a full page ad encouraging Washington state legislators to pass a transportation package (presumably more tax breaks) to that Boeing would build their latest aircraft in Washington state.  Unfortunately, the ad featured a picture of an Airbus jetliner, made by Boeing’s strongest competitor.

 

CBS? What’s That?

For the last three weeks, CBS (Channel 2) has been unavailable on Time Warner, the local cable TV provider for much of New York City.  Not a problem, I said to myself: if I actually want to watch a CBS program, I’ll dig up the antenna that I last used when Sandy hit and the cable went out.

It’s been three weeks now, and I still haven’t hooked up the antenna.  I also haven’t felt the need to try to watch CBS over the Internet, although I understand that CBS has blocked access to its television programming on its Web site for Time Warner customers.

Yup, they’re really that useless.

In fact, there are only two programs that I watch on the broadcast networks anymore: NBC Nightly News, because I feel I have a duty as a citizen to see the mainstream media take on the world (not that I necessarily believe it anymore), and America’s Funniest Home Videos, on ABC, because, well, it’s funny.  There are a couple of favorites on the cable networks, but the only show that I make it a point to watch is Ice Road Truckers: when that finishes in a few weeks, I could probably give up on television entirely.

My wife mostly watches the half-dozen Korean channels available on cable.  Much of the programming has English subtitles.  (I’m ashamed that, after being married twelve and a half years, I can still only say about ten things in Korean.)

The other night, we watched a documentary about a railroad line.  The video takes us from town to town, interviewing people along the way: the athletic young couple traveling cross-country on bicycles; the old ladies who live by the station that recently closed, who watch the trains go by; the local market that’s not as busy as it used to be because the young people prefer to shop at the supermarket.

It’s sweet, and it’s human, and nothing like it is on American television.

I’m sure that Time Warner and CBS will make up at some point, and Channel 2 will be back on cable.  After all, in the fall, it isn’t a proper Sunday without NFL on CBS.

Or maybe they won’t.

I don’t care.

God Bless Us Every One….

Last night, I found myself watching an episode of Sliders on the tube.  This time, Our Heroes found themselves in a world where the commercial aspects of Christmas had taken over, and people were enticed by subliminal advertising into a lifetime of literal debt peonage.

The episode aired for the first time in 1996: not that long ago, but the world has changed so much since then!  We don’t have literal debt peonage, but we’ve come awfully close.  The desperate characters that stood out in the 1990s seem to reflect all of our lives now.  And while subliminal advertising is still illegal (at least I think it is), that’s hardly a problem as we have so much overt advertising coming at us nonstop.  In 1996, the Internet was still mostly a curiosity, something that you experienced while sitting at a designated machine, typically over a telephone line.  (Remember them?)  Today, we have Web sites and blogs and e-mail, all laden with the message to buy! buy! buy!!!!

I had missed the first part of the episode and wanted to watch it again.  It’s available, on Hulu Plus, for the low low price of $8/month, along with piles of other videos.  I know the racket: yes, you can cancel any time, but somehow you never get around to it.  And I have little enough time to watch videos in any case.

I mostly missed Christmas this year, trying to meet deadlines in the face of constant interruptions.  The decorations are up in my office building and in the lobby of my apartment building, but I didn’t have time to clear out the junk and set up a Christmas tree.  The weather hasn’t helped: with lows in the 40s for most of December, it hasn’t felt like Christmas.  And last week I had a nasty head cold.

Still, I should count my blessings: I’m employed, able to keep the lights on and a roof over our heads, and fix a nice Christmas dinner.   My wife keeps me company and puts up with my bad moods.  Tonight, she insisted that we go out for a walk: it felt good to get the blood moving.

Is this what I thought my life would be like in 1996?

Alas, no.

In any case, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night….

Coal

The other day I found myself watching Coal, a reality TV show about life in a West Virginia coal mine.  For a couple of hours, it was engaging television, as we saw the rigors and practical problems of digging coal out of the ground.  The miners themselves are practical, salt-of-the-earth types, a reminder that we’re not yet a nation of empty airheads.  They speak with West Virginia accents, but I guess their parents told them not to mumble, so they’re actually more intelligible than many characters on TV.i

I remember an illustration of a coal mine from my third-grade social studies textbook.  It showed a little electric railroad operating in the mine to bring the workers in and the coal out.  The mine in Coal isn’t  like that: the passages are about 3.5 feet tall, so everyone must walk stooped over.  The vehicles are electric, but there is no railroad.  There is very little infrastructure to speak of: most of the electricity for the equipment comes from a cantankerous generator in a trailer.

The mine isn’t run by a big company.  The ‘president’ of the company leases the mine site from some unnamed source, and then has the challenge of generating enough cash flow to pay the lease, as well as the employees and other costs of running the business.  In any case, big companies don’t run coal mines by digging tunnels underground anymore.  They just dig and blast from the surface, making a really big hole, and then take the coal out.

I wonder about the economics of  running a mine as the basis for a TV show.  Given the dollar figures that they discuss, I would have expected that the fees paid by the TV producers would relieve a lot of the financial pressures on the mining business, and the payment to the employees would mean a significant boost to their paychecks.  But what sort of deal did they actually make?

It’s engaging television, and I’ll probably watch it again.  But it says something about our country that people doing hard work and actually producing something is now unusual enough to merit a TV show.

Quickies

  • One of the local throwaway newspapers, AM New York, ran a survey with the question, “Do the subway disruptions ruin your weekend?”  Every weekend, NYCT rearranges the service on some part of its network in order to do construction of one kind or another.  They post a list of changes a week before, and while I’ve had some unpleasant surprises, I can’t say that it’s ‘ruined’ my weekend.  Evidently other people’s weekends are far more brittle than mine:  64% of respondents answered ‘yes.’
  • The Dow Jones Industrials dropped below 7000 today, down over 50% from its all-time high, below where it fell when the Internet bubble burst, below where it was when the Internet bubble even started to inflate.  Citibank and AIG have been effectively taken over by the government, which means they’re probably dead.
  • Hulu.com is a Web site with streaming videos of old TV shows and a handful of movies.  Alec Baldwin appears in a commercial promoting it as a space alien looking forward to gorging on softened human brains.  The commercial is very effective: you wonder, for a moment, if Alec Baldwin really is a space alien and Hulu really is a plot to soften the brains of the populace before the invasion.  Nevertheless, they have an interesting selection of TV shows, probably worth the risk of having my brain turned to a ripe banana.

Sex and the City

My wife and I went to see the new Sex and the City movie today.  All the reviews of it that I’ve seen to date considered it either wonderful or horrible.  My sense of it was somewhere in between: it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s a good light entertainment.  It would have been better if it were cut about twenty minutes shorter, but I can’t complain too hard: today was the first seriously hot day of the year in New York City, and it was good to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater.

My wife introduced me to the TV series when we got married.  If I had watched it when I was a lonely single guy, I would have hated it: how could I find a decent companion when women were like that?  But ensconced in a happy marriage, the women of Sex in the City seemed unreal: they lived under different laws of relationship physics than the rest of us, and their situations were entertaining when it happened to them, but in the real world, we wouldn’t do things like that.

The TV series got formulaic after a while, and came to a reasonable end in 2004.  The movie represents a continuation of the story a few years hence, and a chance to answer the one thing that I never understood:

What does Carrie see in Mr. Big?

Throughout the entire television series, Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character, is irretrievably attracted to ‘Mr. Big,’ but I could never understand why: Big is a self-absorbed asshole with a fear of commitment.

In the movie, Carrie and Big have been living together, and decide to get married so coldly that the theater had to shut off the air conditioning to prevent frostbite among the audience.  You might have thought that a few years with his true love would have softened Big, but no: he’s still a self-absorbed asshole.  If he were as unsure of himself in his working life as in his relationship with Carrie, he’d be a total loser instead of a bigshot construction executive.  Later, he backs out of his own wedding, and we’re not surprised.

In the end, it’s all resolved, and yes, Carrie and Big get married.  (I don’t think I’ve given away much: in this case, the journey is more interesting than the destination.)  But the groundwork is there for a sequel, say 3-4 years hence, when they get divorced….

Andromeda Sprained

This weekend, I watched the remake of The Andromeda Strain on A&E. When the original came out in the early 1970s, I thought it was way cool: crack scientists in a secret underground lab, trying to understand an actual (if microbial) creature from outer space. I was curious how it got transformed for our time.

First, the story has been retuned to our current mania for death and destruction. In the original, Andromeda did almost all of its killing before the picture started: we drive around the town of Piedmont and wonder what how everyone died at once. But in the new version, Andromeda is the Energizer Bunny of microbes: we see it kill again and again. The odd thing is that its victims only die after they have passed it to someone else.  Later, it kills plants, as well. We’re supposed to believe that Andromeda is intelligent, that it has been sent across billions of miles over at least some number of years with hostile intent. Mostly, I think the scriptwriters are just lazy.

In the original, the military may have had their sinister intentions, but they were secondary to the scientists. Now we see them blundering about throughout the picture (and getting killed): they’re not only evil, they’re stupid as well. The unspoken message: they will not protect you. Meanwhile, the handsome young journalist slips through their fingers. We’re rooting for him, of course, but it’s yet another dimension of military ineptitude.

Another change was to adapt the story to our mania for instant communication. Originally, the scientists were holed up in their top-secret lab, and part of the story turned on a lapse of communication due to a trivial failure of a Teletype machine. In the current version, the scientists are on the phone half the time, even talking to our handsome journalist. What part of ‘top-secret laboratory’ do these people not understand?

Finally, in the original, the key to disarm the atomic self-destruct device is turned over to one of the scientists because he’s a single male, and the Odd Man Hypothesis suggests that single males are most likely to make the correct decision in such matters. We never knew anything about his personal life beyond that, and didn’t think anything further about it. In the current version, it’s impressed on us that the Odd Man is gay.

When I was eleven, the original Andromeda Strain was a shining illustration in the power of reason and logic, although I didn’t put it in those terms back then: it was just really cool. Even though the scientists in the new version do manage to save the world, it’s a pale imitation of the original.

Bingeing…

The Memorial Day weekend was somewhat of a lost weekend for me. No, I didn’t get drunk: instead I indulged in my secret vice, reality television.

I have been bitterly disappointed by the state of televised entertainment. I would love to watch the tube and get a good laugh, but situation comedies are populated by clueless buffoons who prattle on about pointless idiocies. The last network TV program that I made time in my schedule for was The Apprentice. At first, it was an object lesson in how to succeed in business: the characters were driven to do their best because they wanted–really wanted–to work for Donald Trump. But then it came to be about the personalities, then the alleged deprivations of sleeping in a tent. In its final incarnation before they pulled the plug, the original strivers were replaced by indifferent celebrities who were playing for charity.

So I spent the last weekend watching The Deadliest Catch, the saga of Alaskan crab fishermen. No buffoons; no idiocies; just the drama, humor, and, yes, glory of good hard work. When I was a kid, the airwaves were full of stories of adventures and characters who were not dysfunctional.

Today, such characters are the province of science-fiction series, as well as Deadliest Catch and its kin: Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, The Alaska Experiment, and America’s Port. Besides the drama of accomplishing something worthwhile, the reality shows include animations illustrating the details of fishing or logging or whatever.

Today is Wednesday, the night of my newest vice, ABC’s Wife Swap. Sometimes I go out on an evening walk with my wife and miss it, but I’ll watch it if I’m home. I want to rail at it as child abuse, but it’s strangely compelling. Perhaps it’s that the producers select two couples that are polar opposites: super slackers vs. anal-retentive achievers. With such extreme parents–of either stripe–exposing the children to something different can only be an improvement. OK, it’s formulaic, but it works.

But then, so is Deadliest Catch: launch the pots into the water, wait a bit, throw the hook, and then pause just before the contents of the pot come into view….

Back to politics and whatever tomorrow!