prom_dates

When some Nineteenth Century Harvard genius had the bright idea to schedule a “promenade” for the upcoming graduating, he had no idea that it would eventually evolve into a bacchanal for high school juniors and seniors featuring limousine vomiting, lost virginity, floral abuse, ruffled tuxedos, untold hurt feelings, and incalculable charges on already stretched credit cards.

Like many rituals of the middle and lower classes, the prom began its existence as an exclusive, somewhat snobby display by the One-Percenters.  Most historical research suggests that it evolved from dress-up Ivy League dance that eventually filtered down to the masses.  Based on no historical evidence whatsoever, I also believe that the early high school prom was also inspired by the “coming out” traditions of High Society in which rich parents would present their daughters for inspection by their friends, neighbors and eligible bachelors.  In other words, the early prom was actually a poor man’s debutante ball.

For about 50 years the American prom was a relatively innocent affair: a fancy, heavily chaperoned dance in the high school gym.  And as rites of passage go, this seems fairly benign and a little sweet.  And there was a certain logic to the original proms: until the 1960s, young adults wanted to be actual adults — they yearned to grow up and enjoy the freedom and excitement of being  independent contributing members of society.  Wearing a first formal dress or first tuxedo really was a sign that they had crossed the line into adulthood.

But just as they ruined so many other aspects of American culture, the Baby Boomers ruined the prom.  Baby Boomers famously worshiped youth, not adulthood.  They didn’t want to grow up, get a job, and go out in the world.  They wanted to prolong adolescence.  So the prom morphed from a rite of passage into a costume party, with participants dressing up as adults without actually planning to be adults anytime soon.

At the same time, post-war affluence meant that a simple dance in the gym was no longer good enough.  The prom moved to restaurants, country clubs, and other event spaces and the price of admission rose correspondingly.

When I came of age in the 1970s, the prom was on its way out.  I didn’t go to the prom — none of my friends did either.  It was not even a consideration.  The prom?  What a joke.  I was hardly a radical cultural revolutionary, but the prom reeked of corniness, wastefulness and affectation.  It was such an inconsequential event in our eyes that my friends and I didn’t even bother to arrange a counter-event to demonstrate our anti-prom solidarity.  I don’t remember what I did that night — probably just stayed home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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This is an actual picture from my high school yearbook!

Having said that, I was surprised when I later looked in my high school yearbook and saw that the prom had been fairly well-attended, not only by the well-to-do kids but by a bunch of ordinary schmos in powder blue tuxedos and frilly shirts who really should have known better.

I went off to college fully expecting that the prom would die out completely in the next few years, especially after the movie “Carrie” exposed its deep social pathology.

What I didn’t foresee was that Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980 and that a lot of cultural events that seemed helplessly retrograde in the Seventies would be resurrected with a patina of traditional American values.    Just ten years after “Carrie,” the prom would be transformed back into a delightfully romantic event in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986).

Traditional values?  An homage to a more innocent time? As a young enthusiastic Reaganite, I was, for the first time in my life, suddenly OK with the prom.  And I didn’t really think about it again until my own son was old enough to attend his own prom.

Remembering how much my friends and I had disdained the prom in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was against the prom now.  If my son had opted out he would have been branded a social misfit, and worse, would have betrayed his social group by failing to offer himself up as an acceptable date for one of his female friends. Should some poor girl go dateless because he didn’t see the point of it?  How selfish would that be?

I was also surprised to find out that from the perspective of most of the guys, the prom is not that much fun.  So if it’s not fun, why does it still exist?  it persists because there are powerful forces arrayed behind it.  In terms of who wants the prom to exist, here is the ranking from “most in favor of the prom” to “least in favor of the prom”:

  1. The girls’ mothers
  2. Girls
  3. Dress shops and tux rental businesses
  4. Florists
  5. Limo drivers
  6. The boys’ mothers
  7. Venue owners and caterers
  8. Fathers of either gender
  9. Boys
  10. School administrators and chaperones

The worst thing about the modern prom is the sheer scale of it.  It’s not just a dance any more, it’s an industry.  The most insidious recent development is the advent of the promposal,” in which the inviter (usually the guy, even in supposedly enlightened 2017!) has to come up with an elaborate stage-managed invitation that’s supposed to be even more original and creative than a marriage proposal. And it needs to be social media-worthy.

Once the dates have been sorted out, the credit card gets a work out.  Which leads to my second objection to the prom: the cost.  I try not to be too judgy on how other people spend their money, but the the cash outlay for show-off ceremonies like the prom, weddings, bah mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, even funerals, always rubs me the wrong way.  The ticket to the prom in the town where I live is now up to $85 a person, and what you get for that doesn’t even include a band — just a DJ.  But the ticket is just the start of the expense — there’s the tux rental, the new dress, the flowers, and the hair appointment. Needless to say, the hair is so important that 90% of the girls get their mothers to call them in sick to school that day so they can go to a hairdresser instead of wasting time in classes.

Then there’s the cost of the transportation.  Because no one actually drives themselves to the prom.  You need a limo, or better still, a party bus, to drive you and your friends from the photo location to the event.

The aforementioned photo location is actually the most important part of the whole prom process.  In the old days, the photos would be taken when the guy would arrive at his date’s house to pick her up.  Usually his parents would come with him and then both sets of parents would snap photos of the happy couple in her living room.  The process now is that the parents drive their own kid to a central location where five to ten other couples are meeting for photos.  This is the backyard of the richest family in the group, a country club, maybe the beach, or a park.  All the kids line up one one part of the yard and then their parents line up opposite them for an orgy of photography, trying as many permutations as possible: all the girls, then all the boys, then everyone with their date and then groups of best friends in small groups, etc, etc..  When the parents have had their fill and have all mused on how it doesn’t really seem that long ago that they brought this kid home from the hospital, then the dates pile into the limo or bus.

The limo and party bus came into fashion because it was once generally understood that there’d be a certain amount of out-of-sight drinking at the prom and parents wanted to make sure their kids got home in one piece.  That’s not so much the case anymore – after too many vomit-splashed proms, high schools started breathalyzing, so now you can’t even get through the prom doors without proving your sobriety.

prom bus

No, the real point of the limos and party buses is to make the night that much more special — like Cinderella and her coach.   But also, let’s face it, the party bus enforces a certain exclusivity.  If you’re not tight with a group of friends large enough to support a bus, you’re out of it.  Sorry!

As for the event itself, it’s kind of a letdown after the photos and the ride in the bus.   My guess, not having seen the polling data, is that the girls have a more intense experience, either positive or negative, than the guys, who see it as one more ritual that must be endured.

Here’s an indication of how kids really feel about the prom — the doors have to be locked to prevent them from leaving early because God knows what kind of shenanigans they’d get into if they were allowed to sneak out after an hour, which totally would happen, $85 ticket or not.  If they really loved eating buffet and standing around listening to a DJ in formal wear, the school administrators wouldn’t need to guard the doors.

The doors are unlocked 15 minutes before the official end of the prom and five minutes later the venue is empty.  Time for the after-parties!  More often than not, this involves drinking and a co-ed sleepover at someone’s house and if you’re a parent you can only pray the the host’s parents have the good sense to keep an eye on things.

afterprom

In the end, most kids survive the prom.  Maybe there are some hurt feelings over the being asked/being rejected element; or maybe there are some hangovers and rueful memories.  And maybe there are some people who who actually don’t look back on it with chagrin.  All I know for sure is that as I parent of an only child, I’m glad I only had to go through this twice (when my son was a junior and then as a senior). I’d hate to have a parcel of kids and go through it more six or seven times.

So for all those seniors and juniors heading out in your limos tonight — keep expectations low, relax and go with the flow, and stay sober enough to remember all the craziest parts so you’ll have a good story to tell forty years from now.

 

 

Dear White People

Netflix recently debuted the first season of “Dear White People,” a sitcom about the micro-aggressions visited upon African American students at a fictional Ivy League University.  Almost simultaneously ABC’s “black*ish” spun off its own college show starring the show’s oldest daughter Zoey, who leaves the nest to become a college freshman next year.

In other words, after decades of TV not paying attention to a frequently transformative experience that more than half the population goes through, we suddenly have two series about college.

What interests me, though, is not why we now have two shows about college but why we’ve had so few in the past.  There are 20 million people in college at any one time.  Yet in television history there have only been a handful of series set at college.  There was “A Different World,” in which Lisa Bonet, the eldest daughter on “The Cosby Show,” was spun-off into her own show (almost exactly what’s happening with the “black*ish” spinoff).

Then there was “Felicity,” a highly regarded drama set at a New York university that followed the ups and downs of Keri Russell’s title character from her freshman to senior year.  Also there’s the cult classic “Undeclared,” the before-its-time Judd Apatow series about a group of college freshmen at a northern California university.

FELICITY, Scott Speedman, Keri Russell, Scott foley, 1998-2002

And that’s about it, unless you want to count “Community,” which I don’t because it’s really a workplace comedy in which the workplace is a community college.

Television’s reluctance to create shows about college contrasts with the cinema, where some of the most successful comedies (“Animal House,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Legally Blonde”) and dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “The Paper Chase”) are set on campus.

And why not?  College is frequently one of the most intense, dramatic and ridiculous times in a person’s life.  A writers’ room would be able to come up with enough real-life material to produce dozens of scripts.  And there’s a built-in narrative too.  Students usually start out callow and insecure, proceed through a sometimes-disastrous, sometimes-triumphant period of self-discovery, and graduate as much more mature adults.

Part of the problem might be that although most people go to some kind of college, not that many attend the elite colleges that factor so significantly into the upward mobility aspirations of the upper middle classes.  Millions of students attend two-year community colleges; millions more commute to state colleges and universities.  Many drop out burdened with debt.  It’s hard to depict a college experience that is relevant to a large section of the population when there are so many different ways of attending college.

Then there’s the problem that actors quickly age out of their roles, precluding the possibility of a long run.  Even if the series begins with a group of freshmen they can credibly play their characters only four or five years before viewers start asking why they aren’t graduating.  This was a bigger problem back in the days when a production company dreamed of extending a series to seven or eight years and then cashing in on syndication.  Today, when the name of the game is creating a content library that can be accessed forever or monetized on a streaming service, you don’t need a hundred episodes to turn a profit.  In fact, I’d bet that the single season of Apatow’s “Undeclared” is far more valuable on Netflix than most of the other longer-running series that debuted the same year.

Something else that perplexes me about college TV shows is that they are usually told from the perspective of the students, not the professors or administrators. A show with adult staff at the core (a professor, dean, or admissions officer) would provide anchor characters that could be supported by an evolving cast of students.  Probably the most successful college series was “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as a put-upon college football coach, which lasted nine seasons.  Yet even with the success of “Coach,” most college series focus on student life.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the excellent “Dear White People” were to spark renewed interest in this tiny genre.  A series doesn’t need to attract 20 million viewers to be a success these days.  It just needs to attract a loyal audience who will keep subscribing for the one show they really love.

So I’m looking forward to shows about fractious basketball teams, crusading student newspapers, bored faculty wives, university chaplains who have lost their faith, unrestrained political correctness, and kooky campus security officers.  There are a million stories to tell about college life and a thousand platforms to tell them.

 

 

April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.

 

1967Bos

Last Friday, April 14 was the 50th anniversary of the most important baseball game of my life.  In 1967 I was a seventh grader with an extremely loose affinity for the Red Sox (or as my father called them, “The Red Flops”).  Entering the season I made the calculated decision that I was either going to start being a real fan by following them closely, or skip the whole notion of caring about baseball.

April 14, 1967 was a beautiful spring day, so when I got home from school I went outside, sat on the lawn and listened to the game on my transistor radio.  (Television was not an option because only weekend games were regularly shown on TV back in those three-channel days.)

To my surprise, Billy Rohr, the Sox’ 21-year-old rookie, was pitching a no-hitter in his first start, out-dueling the great Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium.  Not only were the Red Sox on the verge of a no-hitter in the first baseball game that I had affirmatively sought out on my own, but the hero was just a kid closer to my age than to White Ford’s.

Rohr was still pitching a nohitter with one out in the ninth when this happened:

Even today that catch by Carl Yastrzemski brings tears to my eyes.  To get the full impact you also need to listen to the play-by-play call by the Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman:

I’ve heard the call so many times over the years that I have it memorized: “Fly ball to deep left,  Yastrzemski’s going hard.  Way back, way back, and he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS catch.”  Yaz saved the no-hitter for only a short while because with two outs in the ninth Yankees catcher Elston Howard hit a soft single into left field and Rohr had to settle for a one-hit shut-out in his baseball debut.

Of course I was disappointed that Rohr lost his no-hitter and I was further disappointed that this performance proved to be a freak event, with Rohr sent back to the minors a month or two later after inconsistent pitching, never to play for the Sox again.   But I was hooked on the Red Sox as surely as if they had plunged a syringe full of baseball heroin into my arm.

For the rest of the summer I followed the Sox avidly, watching on TV when I could, listening on the radio when I couldn’t.  I bought dozens of sports and baseball magazines (the 1960’s equivalent of Deadspin) and dreamed of a day when I too would wear the carmine hose.  That dream, not surprisingly came to a crashing end the next year when I tried out for my junior high school baseball team and saw that the other kids were so much better that I didn’t even look at the posted list of those who had made the first cut.

No, my baseball passion would be solely as a fan.  And I don’t use the word “passion” carelessly.  My ardor for the 1967 Red Sox surpassed the feelings I had for any member of the opposite sex. This was the first time I had a rooting interest in anything besides myself. Since then I have become emotionally invested in other teams, numerous political figures, and too many Oscar ceremonies to mention; that externally directed fandom began with this team.

What a year 1967 was.  The Sox had been league doormats for years, finishing next-to-last in 1966 and playing to sparse crowds.  Indeed, one game in 1965 had been attended by fewer than 500 hardy souls and even on Opening Day 1967 only 8,000 people showed up.

But suddenly, with a few veterans coming into their own, a handful of exciting rookies, and a hard-ass manager who made them hustle, they were competitive.   That early Billy Rohr game was harbinger of thrills to come.

I remember that summer as one long blur of watching or listening to the Red Sox, although I must have done something else that year.  I was just 13, so only partly employed at my parents’ business and I must have spent a lot of time doing early-teen things.  God knows I had no scheduled improvement programs to attend so I must have been out a lot riding my bike or swimming at the municipal pool or exploring the nearby woods.  But my only memories concern baseball.

Like, how we were on the ferry returning from Nantucket when they won their tenth straight game on the road and everyone on the vessel was listening on the radio.  And seeing on TV the next morning that 15,000 fans had mobbed their plane at Logan Airport when they touched down at 2:00 a.m. — more fans that had greeted even the Beatles.

In 1967, the country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam war but the Sox became a unifying force in New England.  The players themselves were still subject to the draft, although most found a way to get into the National Guard, which required them to periodically go off for two-week tours of duty — pennant race or not.

My Red Sox memories also remind me how much time I spent with my cousins at the homes of my aunts and uncles; so many big Red Sox big moments happened when I was watching the TV at their places.  I was at my Aunt Jean’s house the night Jose Tartabull threw out the White Sox’ Ken Berry at home plate in the ninth inning to end the game.

I was staying at my Uncle Carl’s during the fateful weekend the Angels came to town and 22-year-old Tony Conigliaro ended up sprawled in the dirt with a broken cheekbone and a career cut short after a Jack Hamilton fastball hit him square in the face.  That was a tragedy, but just the night before the Sox had roared back from a 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels.

(Here’s a quick tribute to Tony C)

The Sox always seemed to be winning the dramatic games  and the sportswriters started calling them the “Cardiac Kids,” because they gave us all heart attacks.  And they really were kids.  Yaz, the elder statesman of the team, was 27 years old and the rest of the crew were even younger.

And Yaz was an incredible hero, making fantastic catches and timely home runs.  He won the Triple Crown that year and even though I sometimes can’t remember my own cell phone number I can still summon up the stats at will: 44 home runs, .326 batting average, 121 RBIs.

(here’s a quick summary of Yaz’ career)

The 1967 season was one of the all-time great pennant races.  Back when there were no play-offs and only one team got into the post-season, four teams (the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Tgers) battled down to the wire, with three in the running on the final day of the season.

On that fateful Sunday I was once again at my Aunt Jean’s house, watching the game in her basement rec room.  I don’t remember all the details but have never forgotten the key points of the game. The Sox’ Cy Young-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg throwing a complete game and sparking the game-winning rally by bunting his way on base (yeah, that’s when the pitcher’s batted).  Yaz throwing out Tony Oliva at second base as he tried to stretch a single into a double.  And the soft pop-up that landed in Rico Petrocelli’s glove to end the game and induced everyone in the stands to rush onto the field in a wild celebration.

When the Tigers lost later that night the Sox were in the World Series, which also turned out to be a nail-biter.  Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, were a better team so just forcing them to a seventh game before ultimately succumbing was a moral victory.

When the season was over the local TV station produced a special called “The Impossible Dream,” which included cheesy doggerel narration and highlight clips (“This is really a love story/An affair ‘twixt a town and a team/A town that had waited and waited/For what seemed an impossible dream.”)   The excerpts below (which include an New England Telephone ad promoting an extra house phone) provide a real artifact of prehistoric TV production values, but will still bring a lump in the throat to any New Englander over 60.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, they turned the TV special into an LP, which, by the way, I still own and still play on special occasions when I need a good cry:

In the past fifty years the Red Sox have provided a lot of heartache and thrills.  They have been an organizing framework for my life, more closely tied to the passage of time than the seasons themselves.  They have been generational glue in or family — the one thing that parents, grandparents and kids care about. And it all begins with that “Impossible Dream” season 50 years ago.

 

child-watching-tv

The events of November 8, 2016 delivered a severe psychological blow to many corners of American society, including the boardrooms of television executives.

The election’s impact on TV news, with its higher ratings and Twitter feuds, has been much discussed.  So has the effect of the new president on the increasingly politicized award show category and the re-energized late night segment.

TV critics have been eager to view scripted entertainment through the same political lens.  About “The Americans,” the FX show about Soviet spies operating in the U.S. in the 1980s, The New York Times wrote: “In the light of today’s headlines, this Cold War drama feels newly relevant.”

When “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate reality show about a 1960s America occupied by Nazis, returned last December, Newsweek said: “Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different.”

And Slate called the new season of “American Crime,” which is focused on an illegal immigrant from Mexico searching for his son in America, “a worthy, Trump-Era successor to ‘The Wire.’” Looking ahead, you can be sure that when “Veep” and “House of Cards” return, we’ll hear similar commentary about their relevance to our time.

Given how long it takes to conceive, write and produce a season of scripted television, it’s a sure bet that none of these shows was intended to be a commentary on Trump’s America.  This is especially true since these shows were mostly written when everyone in Hollywood expected Hillary Clinton to win.

Eventually there will be TV shows that actually do reflect the Trump presidency. That has always been the case.  The disputatious “All in the Family” seemed to embody the Nixon era, while “Dallas,” with its celebration of buccaneering capitalism, could only have been a massive hit during the Reagan presidency.  And “24,” which preyed upon America’s apocalyptic fear of terrorism, provides essential insight into the George W. Bush presidency.

When television finally does deliver a Trump-era show, I doubt it will be an overt political series, which we are already drowning in anyway.  Seriously, how many dramas, sitcoms, soap operas and satires about the White House can television sustain?  And besides, the conventional wisdom about the Trump administration seems to change weekly.  In just three months the Establishment’s view of the Trump presidency has gone from potentially dictatorial to inept to laughable.  Who knows what’s next?  Any show that attempts to deliver direct commentary about Trump runs the risk of quickly getting stale.

A smart television producer would instead wonder how a complete outsider like Trump got elected in the first place and try to figure out what’s in the mind of his supporters.  That would require a pivot away from the upper-middle class lifestyle that was the focus of so much television programming during the Obama years (think “Modern Family” and “black*ish.”)

In another words, a true Trump-era show would dramatize or satirize the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who are anxious about their status, culture and economic prospects.  This could be a 21st century “Rosanne” with an even more pointed edge. Or a police drama about an immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) squad operating at the border.

If showrunners can’t wrap their heads around what it would be like to be a Trump voter or ICE agent, they could still do a Trump-era show about anti-Trumpers.  This could depict the lives of refugees or undocumented immigrants trying to adjust in America.  There have been recent shows about immigrants (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) but the characters were (mostly) legal.   I don’t think there’s ever been a show about refugees or the undocumented (unless you count “American Crime,” which is more about the crime than immigration per se.)

It looks like the TV industry is getting the memo that it needs more cultural diversity in its programming.  Last November, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, said at the Content London conference, “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places.  There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history, we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

If ABC and the other networks see a market opportunity among the 63 million Trump voters, then there’s a real potential for a wider variety of stories and perspectives.  And maybe our television entertainment would get even better — even if our politics doesn’t.

 

 

 

welcome-to-twin-peaks-1200x628-facebook

Watching “Twin Peaks” back in 1990 used to fill me with dread, but it’s a different kind of dread I feel now at the show’s impending revival on Showtime.  Do we really need to revisit this series and potentially spoil our memories of one of the weirdest and most original TV shows of all time?

I sure hope series creator David Lynch has something more to say and is not just looking for a paycheck, because it sure seemed that he had already squeezed more out of this tale than it could reasonably bear. Even before it went off the air after 29 episodes, it had run dry of ideas and been reduced to gimmicks and increasingly bizarre plot twists. And then there was a reunion movie, the less said about the better.

The weirdest thing about “Twin Peaks” is that it was on the air at all.  TV in 1990 was dominated by the four major broadcast networks with their paint-by-numbers dramas and prime time soap operas. No one had seen anything like this moody and discursive show, where plot took a back seat to atmospherics, dream sequences and raw emotion. And yet the pilot attracted 34 million viewers and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” briefly became a national obsession, justifying a hilarious parody on Saturday Night Live.

In anticipation of the revival and to see whether the show was actually as good as I remembered, I recently watched the original series on Netflix. To revisit “Twin Peaks” after all these years is to be transported back in time.  The show was so intense and out of the ordinary that even the opening notes of the theme song evoke specific memories of people and places from that era.  (And what a great theme.)

While rewatching “Twin Peaks,” the thing that struck me immediately is how much “Stranger Things,” that recent Netflix homage to the eighties, owes to it.  They were both creepy small-town mysteries with handsome sheriffs trying to combat the evil supernatural forces that thrived out in the dark woods.  Both shows deal with parental angst, class divisions, and bullies.

The difference is that “Twin Peaks” turns up the volume to eleven in every aspect and preys insidiously on the cultural anxieties of the late 1980s.  There’s a sweetness and innocence running through “Stranger Things” that is entirely missing in “Twin Peaks,” where unbridled sexuality, greed and drugs threaten to snuff out all that is good in small town life.

And speaking of small towns, I’ve lived in a few and I can tell you that the percentage of drop-dead beautiful girls is much higher in the town of Twin Peaks than it is anywhere else in the universe.

Twin Paks girls

Twin Peaks Girls 2

This is not what the girls looked like when I was in high school

Even 27 years later, “Twin Peaks” has the power to shock, and not just through the murder of a beautiful girl, which is now a commonplace trope, but through Davis Lynch’s eerie direction and Angelo Badalamenti’s otherworldly musical score.  Lynch also got more disorientation out of oddball casting than anyone, except for perhaps John Waters. He resurrected former “West Side Story” co-stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from obscurity, and gave major parts to “The Mod Squad’s” Peggy Lipton and “Carrie’s” Piper Laurie.  Seeing them all in “Twin Peaks” was just plain weird, then and now.

And yet, to be honest, the emotional impact of some scenes is undercut by the overwrought acting.  I actually laughed out loud at the wailing at Laura Palmer’s funeral, which was so over-the-top.  And throughout the whole series the characters show little nuance or depth – they are either good, bad, delusional or perceptive with no grays.

The real man of mystery at the center of the show is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan.  Outwardly, Cooper is a model FBI bureaucrat – straight-laced and playing it by the book.  But he’s full of quirks, including his over-enthusiasm for coffee and pie and a habit of dictating his every thought into a tape recorder for an unseen “Diane.” He’s also remarkably intuitive, able to tell at a glance who’s sleeping with whom, and prone to dreaming about dancing dwarves.

As great as it was, “Twin Peaks” is a cautionary tale about extending a series beyond its natural life.  Once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, there was no reason for the series to continue, but in those days, TV shows ran until their ratings got low enough to be cancelled, which happened just 15 episodes past the murder resolution.

“Lost,” that other popular show with a supernatural mystery at its heart, lasted far longer than “Twin Peaks,” but still tried its viewers’ patience to the breaking point.  More recently, “Mr. Robot” fell into the “Twin Peaks” trap, with a wildly original debut and an audience-displeasing sophomore season.  In the same vein, I am worried about the upcoming second season of “Stranger Things,” given that the first season was a near-perfect extended movie on its own with no need of a sequel.

Despite my reservations about what a contemporary “Twin Peaks” will bring, I’ll definitely watch it.  David Lynch is too great a filmmaker to blow him off.  My curiosity is mounting day by day.   I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, though.  And to be honest, I just hope I can make it through the end of the run.

Trump press corps

I am not one for conspiracy theories but I’m beginning to wonder about what’s up with the feud between the Trump Administration and the press corps. They ostensibly hate each other but somehow this bickering redounds to the benefit of both of them.

TV news ratings surged during the 2016 political season, when the media gave the then-long shot candidate Trump billions of dollars in free publicity, and they haven’t abated much during the early days of his presidency. The print media seems to doing equally well, with the New York Times reporting a quarter million increase paid digital subscriptions last quarter.

Consider the case of CNN’s Jake Tapper, well-known to political junkies but relatively invisible to the vast American public – at least until he was the subject of a notorious Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Kellyanne Conway with a fatal attraction for being booked on his show. How many other political reporters have, like Tapper, seen their visibility soar since they started hooking horns with the Administration? Maybe someone like Rachel Maddow, whose All Trump All the Time diatribes have sent her ratings soaring?

For his part, Trump’s refusal to abide by the niceties of established presidential decorum has kept him front and center of the American consciousness almost every single day since January 20. Plus it makes him a big hero among that very sizable portion of the U.S. public that absolutely loathes the media.

I honestly don’t think news organizations understand the full extent to which conservatives despise them. If they did they wouldn’t wear it like a badge of honor or think they must be doing something right whenever conservatives complain. This antipathy predates Trump by thirty years and his willingness to endure media scorn is precisely what propelled him to power.

When Trump and the media go at it, they are like the codependent parents of a dysfunctional family and the rest of us are the innocent kids who wish they’d either stop fighting or just get divorced. It’s exhausting and there’s never a day off because whenever it starts to get normal, Trump will wake up on a Saturday morning and tweet something crazy, giving the media another excuse to go berserk when the rest of us would just like to take a nap.

The reason recent presidents have tried unconventional ways of communicating with the public is that traditional media have lost interest in being the main vehicle through which presidents get their message across. Two or three decades ago you could count on the president giving three or four major policy addresses a year, plus few annual primetime press conferences. These were all dutifully presented live on TV before huge audiences.

Then the networks, under competitive pressure from entertainment cable channels that had no intention of covering a presidential speech, decided there was no “news value” in primetime presidential addresses and dropped them altogether. Adieu primetime Oval Office speeches. What we got instead was the spectacle of the president of the United States appearing on Zack Galafanakis’s “Between Two Ferns,” Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee” and Mark Maron’s “WTF” podcast. It was a short step from that to Twitter.

To hear the media and the left tell it Trump’s attacks on the media are part of a secret plan to inaugurate American fascism. But what has he done besides name-calling? OK, it wasn’t nice to call them the “enemy of the people” or to blast them to their face in an impromptu press conference, but it was the Obama Administration that used the Espionage Act to go after whistle blowers who leaked to the press and who destroyed press privileges in the federal Fourth Circuit court with subpoenas against The New York Times reporter James Risen.

Oh sure, there is the incident in which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer excluded The New York Times and CNN from a background briefing that was attended by Breitbart and The Washington Times. This has to be the most inconsequential inside baseball story in the young history of the Trump administration.

These small gatherings, called “gaggles,” involve a chosen few reporters who come into the press secretary’s office and get some background information. There is always a pool reporter present who reports back what was said so The New York Times and CNN were able to use that information to inform their readers and viewers of any news that transpired. And besides, remember when the Obama Administration tried to keep Fox News out of their briefings?

What GaggleGate boils down to is that Spicer was petty in not inviting some A-list reporters he didn’t like into his office and these reporters got their noses out of joint. For some reason this was national news.

Clearly there is no censorship or “chilling” of press freedom in this country. Trump gets pounded pretty good by the media every day, and I suspect he secretly likes it, being a practitioner of the “any news is good news” approach to publicity. The media doesn’t HAVE to go caterwauling every time Trump calls them a bad name, but if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to call attention to themselves either.

So Trump and the media are having a jolly old time slugging it out with us, the innocent public, caught in the middle. This was starting to get old even before the Inauguration but now that we’re two months into the Presidency, can we please dial it back and hear about something else that’s happening in the world?