The-Good-Place

Congratulations to last Thursday’s season finale of “The Good Place” season for forcing me to do something that I haven’t done since “Mad Men” went off the air – to sit down and watch a scripted, ad-supported TV show live.

It was a little weird watching TV the old-fashioned way – yelling out to my wife at 8:30, “Hey come on, ‘The Good Place’ is starting in two minutes.”  And sitting through all those commercials?

Although watching that episode live was a throw-back to the days of “Must See TV,” the series itself offers a glimpse into the way TV might be headed, both in terms of content and as a business model.

“The Good Place” is a show about a shallow and selfish young woman played by Kristen Bell who dies in an accident and wakes up in a heaven-like world called The Good Place.  It’s immediately apparent that she didn’t earn her way to a happy after-life and season one depicts her efforts to prevent the community overseer, played by Ted Danson, from discovering the mistake and sending her to The Bad Place.

The series itself is a joke-a-minute sitcom with a wide range of pop culture references in the style of  “30 Rock” that seems to have walked into a freshman seminar on moral philosophy and ethics.  The series is essentially a meditation on who deserves to be in heaven and what it means to be good.  What role does circumstance play?  In flashbacks we see that Kristin Bell’s character had a lousy childhood.  How much should that count?  And what if you’re doing good only because you expect a reward of some kind?

The series is liberally sprinkled with references to philosophers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Kierkegaard and Sartre.  A whole episode, for example, revolves around “The Trolley Problem” in which a runaway train is heading for a group of workers on the track who will all be killed, unless you throw a switch to send it on to a side track where it will kill only one person. The dilemma is: do you let numerous people die by doing nothing or actively murder a completely uninvolved bystander?  Never saw that on a sitcom before.

As delightful and thoughtful as the series is, it only has niche appeal, averaging about a million live viewers an episode and attracting just over one percent of all viewers in that all-important 18-49 demographic.  Numbers like that would have once consigned a TV series to The Very Bad Place.

But here’s where “The Good Place” is showing the way to the future.  It’s really a Netflix show that happens to be on NBC.  Each of its two seasons features 13 heavily serialized episodes.  On most sitcoms, each episode has a new story with a couple of subplots for the supporting characters.  This allows you to watch and enjoy every episode in isolation.  On “The Good Place” there are no subplots – just one story that starts in episode one and continues straight through the entire series.  You can’t watch just one episode mid-season – you’d never get the jokes.

What’s also revolutionary about “The Good Place” story-line is the whiplash you get from the show’s constant reinvention.  You think it’s about one thing, only to find that it’s about something else and then quickly discover that it’s about something else altogether.  The famous surprise at the end of Season One rebooted the whole series, which was followed with three or four more reboots during Season Two.

The series is the creation of Mike Schur, who co-created three other great comedies, “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine Nine.”  These are famously sweet and humane sitcoms in an era of snark and vulgarity.  What a gift it would be to American culture if the critical success of “The Good Place” were to provide a model for the rest of network television.

That’s a big challenge.  Any network that fills its line-up with 13-week serialized series needs to green-light twice as many shows as it used to in the old days when sitcoms had 26-week episodes.  And how often does a talent like Mike Schur come along anyway?    It’s a lot easier to produce a standard workplace or family sitcom where a writer’s room can grind out obvious and predictable set-up/joke, set-up/joke narratives.

But here’s what “The Good Place” business model has going for it; you can monetize quality over the long-term.  Many once-popular but mediocre sitcoms are long since forgotten while the classics survive.  NBC is certainly still reaping financial rewards from timeless series like “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”   Season One of “The Good Place” was trending on Netflix less than a year after it went off the air and the same will be true of Season Two.  “The Good Place” demonstrates that good television can be good business.

 

 

 

 

 

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Netflix Stranger Things

Netflix has been a disruptive, revolutionary force in many ways, but from a PR perspective, what’s particularly interested me is how they’ve refused to play the old “bragging rights” game. You know how that works – the networks deploy an army of in-house publicists to brag about their ratings, which are dutifully reported in the TV columns the next day.

To this end, we get press releases about how Show X won the week among women aged 18-24 or that Show Y finished first among the elusive male 25-34 demographic.   None of this matters in a concrete way because networks make money on ad dollars, most of which are based on commercial ratings. Shows don’t get a bonus for their ranking on a top 25 list. Nevertheless, disputes over who “won” a time slot – even by a tenth of a rating point – can become bitter, with occasional calls to Nielsen to umpire disputes between networks. This makes you wonder whether it’s business or ego driving the publicity apparatus.

Netflix, by contrast, has long disdained bragging rights. They don’t care who knows how big their shows are. They have nothing to gain by boasting about the size of their accomplishments.   They make their money by selling subscriptions, not through advertising, and have no interest in reporting out numbers for individual shows.

From a PR perspective the networks are probably glad the Netflix doesn’t publicize viewing numbers because many original Netflix shows would knock traditional television programming further down in the rankings. On the other hand, the networks would dearly love to know how popular their own catalogue of TV series are when leased to Netflix for streaming. After all, 80 percent of Netflix viewing is leased content (old TV shows and movies). Content owners would have a stronger negotiating position if they knew how many people were actually streaming their IP backlist.

Now Nielsen has begun to measure Netflix. And right in the nick of time too. In a presentation last December to the international media conference organizer asi, Nielsen’s Brian Fuhrer reported that nearly two-thirds of all U.S. homes are capable of streaming, and that among those homes, 53 percent have access to Netflix, 31 percent have access to Amazon Prime and 13 percent have access to Hulu. Within homes capable of streaming, 11% of viewing is streamed content, or Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD).

Clearly streaming is a major source of television viewing, and it’s not just among cord cutters. This would explain the declining viewership of traditional television. And the impact would be even more obvious if video on devices were included, which is not the case now.

Nielsen’s actually had the capability of measuring Netflix for years. All they’re doing is measuring audio signatures, which is a core function of the people meter. However, none of the networks wanted to risk retaliation from Netflix and jeopardize a revenue stream by being the first to sign up for a new SVOD service.   This meant the launch of the service had to wait until a critical mass of Netflix partners had signed up, at which point they all held hands and jumped in the pool together.

Data from the new Nielsen service confirms what we always suspected and provided a few surprises as well. It’s completely expected that Netflix is the major source of streaming, with 43 percent of all streamed viewing. But it’s a little unexpected that YouTube is second with 12 percent of streamed viewing.

Nor is it a surprise that 25 percent of all teen viewing is streamed, although the fact that a fifth of all viewing by 25- to 34-year-olds is streamed has to be alarming to the traditional networks, since this is a key ad demographic.  And among specific shows, it’s interesting that two-thirds of the audience for the bleak “Bojack Horseman” is male; by contrast, women constitute two-thirds of the audience for the single-mom sitcom “Fuller House.”

Nielsen’s data also confirms that binging is a real thing that can have an impact on the rest of the TV universe. A massive hit like “Stranger Things” can dominate the living room TV during its premiere week and land four to five episodes in the top twenty list. Old-timers can remember when “Roots” swept the airwaves for eight consecutive nights in 1977. No show will ever draw audiences like that again, but binged hits like “Stranger Things” can clearly disrupt the rankings these days.

The Nielsen data seems to indicate that the “over the top” future predicted by media prophets has finally arrived. Will we see the collapse of media empires? One thing for sure is that all this great new content will have to come from somewhere. The media world survived and even thrived after the introduction of cable; my guess is that most of the same players will still be standing ten years from now, even with a larger mix of distribution systems.

IMG_3340In the Middle Ages, true believers went gaga over relics — physical items that were either a holy person’s body part or closely associated with a saint.  All over Europe the major cathedrals claimed to display Jesus’ foreskin, the Virgin’s milk, a splinter from the cross, St. Peter’s toe, St. Anthony’s jaw and other items that seem bizarre and/or fabricated.  And yet for centuries these relics were the object of veneration that strengthened the faith of millions.

We do it differently in 21st Century America.  Our relics are associated with TV shows.  A couple of years ago the Museum of the Moving Image had a major Mad Men exhibition, complete with the show’s memorabilia (Don Draper’s fedora, Peggy Olsen’s sunglasses, etc.).   And now “Downtown Abbey” is getting the relic treatment with a full-blown exhibition in a former mansion in midtown Manhattan.

For anyone thinking of attending here is the tourist information:  the exhibition is housed in a three-story, very unassuming, building at 57th and Broadway.    The hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and you are encouraged to buy them online for a specific time.

My office is caddy-corner to the exhibition (see view below from my floor), which I’ve walked past many times since it opened, completely unaware that the exhibition was even there, so it doesn’t exactly make a big splash on 57th Street.  The proximity worked for me, though, because the website was malfunctioning the day I wanted to go so I just walked over at 10:00 a.m. and waltzed in — definitely the best time to visit since I had the  space largely to myself.

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The view from my workspace

The exhibition is a multi-media mix of video tours narrated by Mr. Carson, a display of 50 costumes (mostly dresses but also suits and working uniforms), six or seven actual sets from the series, and lots and lots of props.  All this is interspersed with clips from the show and piped-in theme music.

The exhibit has a quasi-museum feel to it, with written text on the walls explaining cultural trends from the early Twentieth Century and putting the fashions into historical context.  It takes a minute to remember that what we are looking at is still just a set for a TV show and costumes that were created a few years ago — not actual artifacts like you’d find at an actual museum.

The layout of the exhibit loosely follows the layout of a grand house like Downton: the exhibits related to the servants are downstairs and the top two floors are reserved for the Crawley family’s displays.

The downstairs sets include Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, the servants’ dining room and Mr. Carson’s study.  And of course the servant’s costumes, which are even more monochromatic than they appeared on TV.

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I don’t know who produced the text that elaborated on the lives of the servants but it’s in keeping with Julian Fellowes’ apparent belief that these grand houses were good for society.  We learn, for example, that the houses provided employment and upward mobility for the ambitious children of the local farmers and that most of the servant girls married themselves off and left service by their late 20’s.  Those without spouses could continue to rise within the hierarchy in the house and become lady’s maids and housekeepers.  There was a similar path for the men as well.  And who knows, this socio-economic interpretation might even be true, although the exhibit doesn’t dwell on the relentless work that being a maid entailed.

The second floor of the exhibit has a lot more color and glamour, showing the Crawleys’ dining room and Mary’s bedroom (a place of great drama, given that Mr. Pamuk expired in that bed and Anna’s baby came into the world in the same spot.) The dining room is the most spectacular set in the exhibit, with glorious silver and crystal.  There’s also a helpful account of how men had to wear white tie for every dinner, until the 1920s, when standards relaxed and they could get by with black tie.  How exhausting to be always playing a part!

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Mary’s bedroom, complete with her evening robe and undergarments

The second floor continues the theme of Downton-as-benefactor.  We have a clip of Robert Crawley exclaiming that if Downton doesn’t provide hundreds of jobs it has no point.  So Downton does not exist to glorify one family and keep the lower classes in place — no, it’s a giant jobs program  Why, Lord Grantham is FDR and Downton is the WPA!

Like the TV show itself, the Downton exhibit wants to have it both ways — it wants to be historically accurate and also demonstrate that the characters are more or less just like us.  For example, there’s text describing how stiff and formal the nightly dinner is supposed to be — it sounds daunting and not much fun.  However, this is accompanied by videos of the Crawleys breaking all the rules — laughing, yelling at each other, and not being the least bit stuffy.

In fact, the character who should be the stuffiest — the Dowager Countess — is the liveliest of all and a softy underneath too. Violet Crawley has a whole area to herself, the highlight of which is a video of her dozen or so wittiest quips. But the exhibit goes to great pains to show that she was a fierce protector of her granddaughters and a breaker of tradition when it suited her.

The third floor has no sets from the show — just a lot of dresses, with a special emphasis on wedding dresses.  This section reminds me of the Smithsonian, where the First Ladies’ inauguration gowns are on display.  And it was at this point where I looked around and noticed that about 75 percent of the people at the exhibit were women of a certain age.  Most of the rest were their husbands or male companions.  All white, of course.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I just noted it as an interesting phenomenon.

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It took me about an hour to complete the exhibit.  I later read a review by someone who said she spent two and a half hours there.  I can’t imagine it.  She must have looked at every sequin.

In the end I was glad I attended the exhibition if only to satisfy my curiosity.  Stepping into Downton World is like settling into a warm bath or drinking a glass of wine on the couch — its slightly soporific and tends to retard your cognitive ability, even as you get a feel-good tingle.  It’s a soft-edges world, where everything appears to be in balance and no permanent harm can come to anyone (unless you’re an actor who wants off the show, in which case you come to a gruesome end.)

So if you’e in NYC, by all means stop by to see it.  But don’t make a special trip.

Some other thoughts:

  • I’ve written extensively about Downton.  You can read my recaps here: (Gary’s Downton pieces.)
  • The exhibition was originally slated to run through the end of January but the run has been extended through April.
  • The exhibition building only has “up” elevators so if you can’t walk down stairs (and these are long staircases), you better give it a pass.  It’s hard to believe it isn’t handicapped-accessible so if this is an issue call ahead to make sure.
  • The exhibition occurs in a building (218 West 57th Street) that used to house Lee’s Art Supplies, a pretty well-known art store.  The building has been sitting empty waiting for a Nordstrom’s to open across the street, and which point the owners plan to create a high-end retail space.  Higher-end than an art supply store, at least.  So this exhibition is a real gift to them, providing rental income when it might otherwise be empty.  For more detail on the property, check it out here.

 

CNN Airport

We’ve just escaped from the peak travel season, when tens of millions of people spent millions of hours waiting in the airport for their flights to depart, and experiencing rising blood pressure because CNN was pouring out of screens all around them.

There are two types of people who get aggravated watching CNN at the airport: those whose heads almost explode every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, and the “fake news” crowd who think the media, especially CNN, have a vendetta against the president.

With about 50 airport outlets, CNN Airport is not available at every gate but it’s the prime video source at many of the biggest airports. And it’s important to note that the CNN Airport feed is not the same as standard CNN, having a greater emphasis on sports and weather while editing out most airplane crash stories.

But even with the extra emphasis on sports and weather, there’s still a lot of political news on CNN Airport and that means a lot of commentary about President Trump. I’ve written before that the news media and the President pretend to be engaged in a fight to the death, but are actually in a codependent relationship at the expense of our sanity and peace of mind.   President Trump has a pathological need to see himself on TV 24/7 and the media desperately need ratings.

CNN in particular does not have clean hands. This is the network that I watch when I need to absorb live news so I saw a lot of their coverage of the 2016 Republican primaries. Back when it mattered and there were real alternatives to Trump, CNN seemed to be wall-to-wall Trump. I think they understood early on that airing a live Trump rally generated a lot higher ratings than a Jeb Bush town hall and acted accordingly.

Somewhere along the line this mutual back-scratching soured and now CNN and Trump are ostensibly at each other’s throats. You can’t go fifteen minutes without some CNN analyst, commentator, or panelist observing what an idiot the President is and of course the President is more than happy to respond in kind with a nasty tweet.

So, that’s great for CNN’s ratings, but is all that high school-level drama what we really need while we’re sitting at a gate waiting to be seated on our delayed flight?

And more to the point, in this day and age do we really need a news program to be constantly blaring at the airport at all? Almost everyone who can afford a plane ticket has a smartphone with access to Twitter or any newsfeed of their choosing.

De-stressing is the reason the Life Time Fitness gym chain decided to eliminate all national cable network news stations (not just CNN but also Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC) from the TV screens at its 128 fitness centers in the U.S. and Canada. The chain said its members had had enough “consistently negative or politically charged content” and wanted instead a family-oriented environment.

What’s good enough for a fitness center seems good enough for an airport. Rather than a news network that raises our anxiety levels at the airport how about a palliative video feed? I’m not talking about a Transcendental Meditation channel but maybe something with a higher level of entertainment.

How about a channel that shows nothing by animal videos? TheDodo.com is a website devoted to cute and inspiring animal videos – turning that into a airport channel would raise everyone’s spirits. But even if animal videos are not your thing, I’m sure there are plenty of other mood-elevating content providers who could step forward.

Alas, the business of supplying airport video is just that – a business. Companies bid for this space and unless their erstwhile competitors make a sudden leap forward, CNN is likely to remain a dominant provider as long as airports look at the bottom line instead of what’s best for the mental health of travelers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bye bye 2017.  It wasn’t a great year for cinema — although it did produce one great movie (“Dunkirk”) and five or six pretty good ones.  And that doesn’t even include the movies I’ve yet to see because they haven’t yet been screened in the wilds of Connecticut.

It’s no surprise that most of my movies fall into two categories — blockbusters or arty independent films — given that this is where the creative action is these days.  Everyone in Hollywood is either shooting to gross $500 million or win an Oscar, with not a lot in between.  This makings rankings a little silly.  How are you supposed to decide whether “Lady Bird” is better than “Wonder Woman”?  They both have female directors and female protagonists trying to separate from their mothers.  The only difference is $450 million in ticket sales.

What’s a little surprising is how many of these movies — nine out of nineteen — are based on true stories, including two that climax with Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech.  I guess all the original storytellers have moved to Netflix.

I’m a little sad that I only saw 19 movies this year — it’s not like I was giving up on the big screen, but week after week would go by with nothing interesting to watch — and some of the really arty stuff came and went so fast I missed it completely.  With that in mind, here’s my list.

1. Dunkirk

The most politically incorrect movie of the year.  The entire cast is composed of straight white men, for God’s sake!  The rescue of the surrounded British army from the beaches of Dunkirk by a flotilla of small pleasure craft is one of the great stories of World War II and Christopher Nolan has turned it into one of the greatest art films of all time, with minimal dialogue and a conflation of three different time sequences.  It’s epic, it’s thrilling and it’s going nowhere at the Oscars.

2. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical account of her high school years in Sacramento is both very specific to its time and class, and universal to everyone who’s ever gone to high school and wanted something more.  The main character (played by the actress with the unpronounceable Irish name who starred in “Brooklyn”) struggles to be special and transcend her extremely middle-class background through various misadventures of senior year.  Everything seems to be on the line — and it is, for a girl who wants to get away from her hometown.

3. Get Out

Is this a direct attack on the Trump era’s approach to race or a remarkably well-made horror movie in the style of “Rosemary’s Baby”?  I’ll leave the politics to others but it is definitely a fun thriller in which the villains are white liberals.  Jordan Peale deservedly made a ton of money on this tale of a black dude who hooks up with someone out of a “Girls” episode (literally, it’s Allison Williams who plays Marnie) and ends up in trouble when he goes home to meet her parents.  The rising level of creepiness and dawning awareness of what’s happening is masterful. (Fun fact — Jordan Peale is himself married to a white woman — the comedian Chelsea Peretti.  I bet Thanksgiving with the in-laws was fun after this movie came out.)

4. Wonder Women

A p superhero movie — maybe the best of all time — because it’s intelligent, wry and to scale (at least until the final 15-minute battle with Ares, the evil god of war).  Gal Godot is the perfect Wonder Woman — as sexy as they come and playing the role straight.  The political commentary on the fact that the movie had a woman director almost ruined my fondness for the film (see more of my commentary here), but not entirely.

5. The Last Jedi

The most beautiful and best-acted Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi suffers from mid-trilogy syndrome.  It’s obviously a bridge to get from the intro film to the finale, with a lot of extraneous filler and a huge body count.  A lot of the plot doesn’t make sense, but the characters are well-drawn and appealing.  Can’t wait for the next one!

6. Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2

A really fun space movie with enough emotional beats to keep you caring.  Who would have guessed that the schlumpy loser boyfriend on “Parks and Recreation” would become a major movie star?

7. The Big Sick

The real life (-ish) story of how the Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his future wife and stood by her while she was in a coma.  It’s funny, sweet and touching.  Probably the best coma movie since Sandra Bullock’s “While You Were Sleeping.”

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The character played by Frances MacDormand is wild with fury and grief that the killer of her raped and murdered daughter’s has not been found and seeks to publicly shame the local sheriff.  It’s not as depressing as it sounds!  Emotionally-compelling and well-crafted until about 2/3rds of the way through when it completely goes off the rails.  Not sure what Peter Dinklage is doing in this movie.

9. All The Money In The World

An incredibly tense dramatization of the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty in 1973.  I’d have been having a heart attack if I didn’t know how it turned out in real life.  This is the movie in which completed scenes by Kevin Spacey were reshot with Christopher Plummer after those unfortunate revelations of sexual misconduct were exposed last fall.  Plummer was great, so — good job!

10. Hidden Figures

This movie should have been on last year’s list but was not available for screening when I published last year.  Very mainstream entertainment about the genius black women who helped launch the space program through their jobs as human computers.  Not particularly complex but the good gals win and it’s very satisfying.

11. Baby Driver

This is a lot of fun if you like car chases and pop music.  The title character is a superhuman get-away car driver with daddy issues.  Kevin Spacey plays the local crime lord but because the movie came out before those unfortunate revelations his scenes were NOT reshot by Christopher Plummer.

12. Patriots Day

A good recap of the police investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing.  Mark Wahlberg is the “everyman” stand-in who is miraculously at the site of every major break in the case.  Kudos to the cops who caught these terrorists.  It’s amazing to see how they were able to capture these guys so fast.  Talk about gripping.

13. American Made

Tom Cruise was born to play this role — the good old boy hot shot pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to smuggle arms to the Contras during the eighties.  Based on true events, which I confirmed on wikipedia.  Cruise is one of those guys who can’t be bound by everyday conventions and is addicted to danger.  BTW, Cruise plays a guy who’s about 35 and he looks it.

14. The Disaster Artist

I was completely unaware that “The Room” even existed and was considered to be the worst movie of all time until this James Franco dramatization.  If you are unfamiliar with the story, watch a few YouTube clips of the original movie because you will never believe that such a weird thing ever happened.

15. Darkest Hour

This is a decent counterpoint to “Dunkirk,” depicting as it does the political machinations in the British government while their army was being driven by the Nazis to the Dunkirk beaches.  Gary Oldham is very good as Churchill, but the movie feels claustrophobic with all those cabinet meetings.   And the invented scenes (like Churchill in the subway) really strain credibility.

16. The Lost City of Z

The last of the “based on a true story” movies I saw this year, this one is about an explorer searching for riches in the Amazon during the early 20th Century.  The movie has some things to say about colonialism, dream-seeking, racism, ambition and obsession, but everything proceeds with a stateliness that borders on boring.

17. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cute but inconsequential retelling (again!!!!) of the Spider-Man origin story.  Tom Holland is winning as the teenage Spidey but I strained to care.

18. Thor Ragnarok

I am not a fan of the Marvel universe, having grown up as a DC Comics kid, but I’d heard this was funny.  And it was funny and jokey in the same way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is.  But I could not have cared less about the fate of Thor or any of his dysfunctional family.  I was so bored I actually walked out half-war through.

19. The Batman Lego Movie

I loved the original “Lego Movie” but making a super-depressed depressed Batman into a superhero Lego protagonist throws away almost all of the joy from the first movie.  Like “Thor Ragnorok,” this isn’t exactly a bad movie — I just don’t care for the snarky superhero genre where nothing seems to be at stake.

Hardly anyone would claim that 2017 was one of the great years of television, but there were several memorable or even transcendent moments that are worth celebrating.  Here are my ten favorite television memories from 2017, in no particular order:

The Return of Special Agent Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks

“Twin Peaks: The Return” was arguably the most bizarre series that ever appeared on American television, seizing the crown from 1990’s original “Twin Peaks.”  And yet it was also the most mesmerizing thing to be on television in years.  The pace of the 2017 show was a  master class in delayed gratification, with long languid scenes in which not a lot happened and most tortuously, episode after episode in which Kyle Maclachlan  appeared as anyone other than Dale Cooper.  Finally, in episode 16, he transforms from “Dougie Jones,” the uncomprehending idiot savant to Special Agent Cooper himself with the great line “I am the FBI.”  What a glorious moment.

The Last Five Minutes of Super Bowl 51

Whether you think this moment was “great” TV depends obviously on your affinity for the New England Patriots and Tom (the GOAT) Brady.  But even to an disinterested observer this was amazing TV.

Jimmy Fallon’s “Let’s Dance” Monologue on Saturday Night Live

This has been a tough year for Jimmy Fallon because his light and silly approach to late night TV has seemed out of step with the national all-politics-all-the-time zeitgeist.  But his beautifully choreographed dance through the halls of NBC was not only a terrific tribute to David Bowie but a case study of how taking a break from politics can be joyous and life-affirming.  Let’s Dance!

Alex Bregman’s Hit from Game Five of the World Series

For the second year in a row, the World Series demonstrated why baseball, for all its mid-season languors, is the greatest game.  In a thrill ride of a series, the high point was the end of Game Five, an astounding five-hour and eleven-minute marathon that finally ended when Alex Bregman broke a 12-12 (!!!!!) tie with a 10th inning single.  How sorry I was that I wasn’t awake to see this live but how exciting it was to watch the replay the next morning.

“The Good Place” Season Finale

“The Good Place” is the smartest sitcom that’s been on network TV in a long time, and I mean literally smart, since actual philosophers have endorsed its presentation of situational ethics.  The show revolves around a deceased woman who finds herself in heaven despite having lived a selfish life on earth — the longer the series goes on, the deeper it digs into the issue of what it means to live a good life.  Thanks to the great comedic acting of Kristen Bell and Ted Danson the show is also very funny, but what gets it on this list is the conclusion of the first season, which contains one of the most surprising twists since Bobby’s dream in “Dallas.” (The key spoiler is in the clip below so be warned.)

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” Closes Out Ken Burns’ Vietnam War Documentary

People tend to groan when a new Ken Burns documentary comes out because they are so long and so formulaic. Yet there’s no denying that he picks the most important American turning points to focus on and that that even if you sometimes feel like you’re taking your medicine when you watch, the cumulative power of these documentaries is remarkable.  For Baby Boomers, the 18-hour Vietnam War documentary was more powerful than most Ken Burns offerings because we lived it. My wife and I knew most of the history that was presented, but to have it laid out in one narrative deepened our understanding of that period in history.  In a documentary with many searing moments, perhaps the most memorable is the closing minutes, when a former soldier reads a tribute to his former comrades.  It’s hard not to cry.

Eleven Returns on “Stranger Things”

Two of the most widely anticipated shows of the year were new seasons of “Stranger Things” and “Twin Peaks,” and they both deployed the plot device of keeping a key protagonist exiled for most of the season.   The appearance of the super-powered girl named “Eleven” was the emotional high point of “Stranger Things,” providing a tremendous catharsis because it had been denied us for eight episodes.

Episode Three of “Five Came Back”

The Netflix documentary Five Came Back explores the experiences of five hugely successful Hollywood film directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens — who volunteered to serve in World War II as documentarians and propagandists.  The whole series was great but the final episode, which covers the end of the war and the impact it had on the directors, is enormously powerful.

The La La Land/Moonlight Academy Award Snafu

I’m not sure what compelled me to stay up to watch the end the end of the Oscar telecast this year, especially since a La La Land sweep seemed inevitable.  But I’m glad I did so I could see the biggest TV screw-up of the Millennium. I’ve rewatched this clip in Zapruder-like detail and sussed out the many villains and even a few heroes. On top of everything else, Moonlight was my favorite movie of the year too.

The Jail Scene of Atlanta

Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” accomplished something unusual — the creation of a world never before scene on TV, in this case an unvarnished look at the African American experience in Atlanta.  In a series with so many funny moments perhaps the most hilarious is the night that the Princeton-dropout protagonist spends in jail just trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

 

 

 

 

Timeshifting

Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anyone care?  I know I don’t.  I’m increasingly living in a time-shifted dimension disconnected from time and season.

I realized how disconnected I am from live television a few weeks ago, when I sat down to watch HBO’s autism benefit and had no clue how to watch HBO live, despite being a 20-year subscriber.  I consume a lot of HBO content but almost always on HBO Go.  So when I wanted to watch the benefit, I couldn’t remember what, you know, “channel” the network was on, and had to go through the laborious process of finding that information from my cable provider’s website.

And then it occurred to me:  Except for sports and news, it’s been a long time since I watched any television show live.  In fact, I know the exact date I did so: Sunday, March 7, 2016, the series finale of “Downton Abbey.”  I was only watching live because I’d been recapping the show for a couple of years.  Before that, the last time I watched a show live because I absolutely HAD to was the series finale of “Mad Men.”

For the record, I’m not a cord-cutter.  We pay a lot to watch a full range of broadcast, cable, premium, and streaming channels.   I just don’t watch live.

This means I’ve lost complete track of when my favorite TV shows air and even what network they are on.  I literally have no idea what day “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is on — never mind the time — and have to think hard to remember it’s on Fox.

The way we watch TV in our house is, we look at the DVR recording guide to see what shows are in the queue (“Oh, ‘Modern Family’ was on last night!”).  If nothing urgent is there, then we move on to HBO and Netflix.  And if I have a spare half hour and want to watch a screen but there’s nothing I particularly need to see on Netflix, the last thing I’d do is channel-surf.  Much more likely is that I’ll click over to YouTube and watch some favorite music videos, film clips or TV scenes.

People time-shift for many reasons.  The original draw for VCRs was that they allowed you to fast-forward through commercials — and go out in the evening and catch your favorite show when you came home.  Still, the understanding was that using a video recorder would be the exception, not the rule.

Two trends have pushed me into a full-time time-shifter.   First, with all the high quality television available today, everything I watch is “Must-See TV.”  I would never just turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on.

Just as important, the fragmentation of TV, with the broadcast network monopoly smashed to pieces, means I no longer feel compelled to watch a show when it’s live so I can talk about it with friends or colleagues the next day.  No one’s watching what I’m watching, so there’s no water-cooler chatter about TV.

It’s funny how easily old habits die.  I can barely recall what it was like to watch the clock to make sure I didn’t miss a favorite show.  And yet back when I was younger and had a vastly more active social life outside the house, I somehow managed to consume even more television than I do now.

What I can’t wrap my head around is whether I am an outlier or a harbinger of future viewing habits.  Clearly a lot of people are still watching live TV.  Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report shows that the average person still watches nearly four hours of TV a day.  That’s only down by about 15 minutes compared to the same period two years ago.   (This would be a good time to remind everyone that only about half the homes in America even have DVRs, and fewer subscribe to premium cable channels).

But I don’t feel unique as a full-time timeshifter, certainly not with a 25-year-old in the family.  He’s lived in his own apartment for three years and would no more own a television than a Sony Walkman.

So maybe I’m slightly ahead of the curve.  A decade ago I pish-poshed futurists who said that live TV would eventually go away.  But now that it’s happened to me, I’m not so sure.

After all, if an old-timer like me can abandon live TV, anyone can.