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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

TV or not TV

I am sometimes embarrassed by the movies I have seen and (even more so) by the ones I haven’t seen. For a change of pace, however, I thought I might spend some time embarrassing myself by mentioning the television I am watching.

Now, like a lot of people in my demographic, I don’t actually get a lot of time to watch television, and when I do watch, I see a depressing number of children’s shows. But that’s no excuse for what I do watch after the Little Muchkin has gone to bed. After all, we’re not back in the days where one had no choice but to watch what was on during the few minutes when one had time to sit down in front of the idiot box. Actually, most of us (well, not me personally) are still back in those days, I think. From what I observe of most people around me, the VCR was way too complicated to master (other than for watching rented movies), so there was even less hope that most people would actually learn to use a TiVo or other DVR. How far has the product (one I have touted often) actually penetrated into the general populace? Obviously, geeky people use them. Even my late sainted mother used one, although she didn’t exactly tap its full potential. She never actually programmed it herself (that was my job), and she usually didn’t even use it for time shifting. But she liked it because it automatically changed the channel for her when one of her favorite programs started, avoiding the bother of even having to reach for the remote. I know celebrities use them because I often see famous people on chat shows mentioning that they TiVoed this program or that program, but I suspect that it’s actually their personal assistants that are programming them.

So, anyway, as a more-than-competent user of the TiVo-like Sky+, I don’t have an excuse for not watching what I want on TV when I do watch something. Mostly, when I get the chance to sit in front of the boob tube, I am watching some news program. Since my satellite dish gets Sky News, BBC News 24, CNN International, CNBC and Fox News, there is no lack of opportunities to view reportage, analysis and news chat. But what to watch for mere (non-informative) entertainment? Since I tend to be a compulsive personality, I try to get avoid getting stuck in series, since I nearly become a slave to them. These days, there is no Babylon 5 or even a Frasier to keep me in thrall, and that’s a bit of a relief (although I would kill to get a few more new episodes of B5). So, what do I wind up watching? These days I find myself regularly viewing four entertainment series. In order of most embarrassing to least embarrassing, they are as follows:

  • Joey: Now, this wasn’t my choice. I have to watch this because the Missus liked Friends and she sees this basically as a continuation of that series. Personally, I haven’t rendered a final opinion on this yet. Of the six main characters on Friends, I think Joey was my least favorite. On the other hand, it took me quite a while to get into Frasier after it was spun off from Cheers, and I eventually wound up thinking it was brilliant. But Joey has more in common with that other spin-off of Cheers, The Tortellis which was 180 degrees different from Frasier in that in concentrated on the dumbest characters of the parent series. Still, as the storyline has progressed with Joey becoming a star of a TV series, the door has been opened for satirizing the television business itself. It seems to be evolving into Candide in Hollywood. And it actually seems to be getting funnier. It might actually have a chance of redeeming itself.

  • Smallville: Now this is really embarrassing because I don’t even have the excuse that the Missus likes to watch it. My excuse is that I have a relationship with Superman that goes way back and I am naturally drawn to movies and TV shows about him (even that Lois & Clark one). I never really got a chance to watch Smallville until this season, when I was looking for something to TiVo for late at night when I was spending the month of January in California. The premise is intriguing. It’s about the teenage years of Clark Kent, but not back in the 1950s like in the Superboy comics I used to read. Clark isn’t even Superboy in this series. He is just a teenage boy dealing with teenage problems plus the extra one of being an extraterrestrial with an extremely hot, professional male model-like humanoid body who has superpowers. The irony is that he is one of the few kids in his high school who is thought not to have superpowers since the meteor shower from the exploded planet Krypton that accompanied his arrival has turned practically every youngster in town into a potential super-villain. One commentator on the IMDB summed it up as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The X-Files. The problem is that there is an awful lot of long moments of adolescent angst as the young actors emote about this problem or that problem, usually involving a member of the opposite sex. The show also functions as something of a perpetual tease, as the chaste and highly moral Clark is constantly besieged with all sorts of temptations that wind up with alarming frequency in him taking off his shirt. All kinds of pretexts (e.g. red kryptonite, body transfers) come up to force Clark (or his body anyway) into some kind of passionate behavior. This is inevitably followed by The Talk with the parents where they lecture him sternly about what they always taught him and how disappointed they are. Then Clark invariably comes back with some other lesson that they taught him that makes everything all right. This sort of stuff can get tedious but, on the other hand, there is generally pretty cool music on the show’s soundtrack, and the writers have a sly, knowing way of including all kinds of references to the timeless Superman family of comic books into almost every episode, keeping die-hard old DC readers like me entertained.

  • Desperate Housewives: I tried watching this in January as well because I had heard so much about it. For some reason I couldn’t watch it in the States. Some TV shows are like that. The Missus and I used to watch ER every Sunday night when we were in Ireland but couldn’t watch it when we were in the U.S. Don’t know why. Doesn’t matter anyway, since we don’t watch it anywhere at all now. Anyway, Desperate Housewives has become our guilty pleasure. The title alone nearly makes it worth watching. It’s one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too TV shows. It gets credit for being a fairly clever and stinging satire of American suburban life, yet I suspect that most of the audience isn’t tuning in for satire or other intellectual reasons. I think they tune in to watch the ex-model housewife carry on with the teenager who mows her lawn and other sundry escapades. (Its have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too nature extends to the fact that its lascivious entertainment is making big bucks for Disney, the family brand in entertainment.) The show’s mixture of black humor and soap opera with a dose of titillation and a touch of mystery/suspense does for suburbia what Hill Street Blues did for urban law enforcement and Twin Peaks did for remote small towns. It’s strangely addictive, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Still, the idea of Hollywood satirizing middle America and middle America tuning in every week to lap it up suggests that maybe the country’s cultural gap may yet be bridged.

  • Doctor Who: It has to surprise lots of people to learn that I was never mad into Doctor Who during its fabled 1963-1989 run. After all, it was right up my alley. The sci-fi epic-ness of Babylon 5 plus the endearing shlockiness of Dark Shadows. What could be a better fit for me? Well, being a compulsive personality, I wanted to see every episode from the beginning, and by the time I became aware that this BBC show was playing on a public television station near, there were way too many episodes to catch up on. Well, now I have my chance. The BBC premiered a new series a few weeks ago, and I got my chance to get in from the beginning. Now, since I am aware that one of the conventions of the series was always that the doctor could regenerate himself (allowing no fewer than seven actors to play him during the series’ multi-decade run), it is not entirely clear to me whether the new series is a continuation of the old one or a brand new fresh start of the saga. Anyway, a couple of things are clear. The production values are of much higher quality than the old series—although the doctor still travels around in a phone booth. And it has a tongue-in-cheek quality that I’m not sure was so apparent in the old series. In fact, there is a definite influence from those great British sci-fi comedies, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf. Indeed, the second episode was a direct rip-off of, I mean, homage to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The series is entirely about nothing other than some outlandish fun, although the writers do slip in some subtle points here and there to remind us that we are, after all, still watching the BBC. Like the way the aforementioned second episode portrayed the human race as disgusting while the alien descended from rain forests was lovely. Or the two-part episode that had aliens plotting World War III on earth by putting out a bogus story about weapons of mass destruction. The new doctor, Christopher Eccleston (24 Hour Party People, Revengers Tragedy, 28 Days Later), has an infectiously impish devil-may-care attitude about him, although his casual northern England patter is quite a departure from earlier incarnations. And as his time-hopping companion, Billie Piper provides the kind of warmth that should encourage even the nerdiest of teenage boys to get up from their computers. Happily, I’ve finally found something to watch on TV that I don’t have to be embarrassed about.

    -S.L., 28 April 2005

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