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Monthly Archives: October 2013

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When guests enter your house for the first time, they sometimes try to get a sense of who you are by checking out your bookshelves, the art on your walls or your array of personal photos.  Occasionally a brazen few will sneak a peek inside your medicine cabinet.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but if they really want to peer into your soul, they should check out your DVR.

What does your DVR say about you?  Are you the kind of obsessive-compulsive person with only a few carefully curated items on his or her Recorded List?  Or maybe you’re a slob who never clears out any recorded shows until the hard drive is full.  Or maybe you’re indecisive and can’t decide what shows to erase and what to keep.  (Really, at this stage, will you ever watch the final episode of “Talking Bad” or the premiere of “Mom”?)

Your DVR exposes who you want to be and, more painfully, who you really are.  DVRs are highly aspirational.  You record programs that reflect the person you dream of becoming, but then in the harsh glare of reality, you find out you’re really not like that after all.

Last year, when “Great Performances” produced a documentary about “Magical Mystery Tour,” I somehow ended up recording an entire season of other performances, and now my DVR is full of PBS-sponsored concerts, ballets and plays.  I would love to be the kind of person who kicks back on a Friday night, cracks open a bottle of chardonnay, and watches the Paul Taylor ballet company perform in Paris, but almost always I’m not really up to it when the rubber hits the road.  This year “Great Performances” has been offering some very worthy productions of Shakespeare’s history plays.  In my imagination, I’m a cultivated viewer who voluntarily watches “Henry V,” but there it sits on my DVR, unviewed, mocking my own middlebrow pretensions.  I really should erase it, but I don’t really want to admit to myself that I’m really the kind of guy who deletes Shakespeare. So it remains untouched, waiting for the day when a few English majors come over and watch it with me.

The DVR also exposes your secret vices and guilty pleasures.  Since 75% of television is the video equivalent of junk food, the DVR is bound to reflect a few tastes and behaviors you’d rather not have the world know about.  Maybe you’re an addict of “The Long Island Madame.”  Maybe you get management tips from “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Maybe you think “Sex in the City” has some good relationship insights – and you’re a guy.  Or maybe you watch old Nickelodeon shows because they remind you of the time when you and your now-always-texting college freshman used to sit on the couch and laugh at “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In our household, the dirty little secret is the episodes of “Glee” that are starting to pile up.   My wife and son live in fear that someone will come into the house and think that THEY are the ones who gave this teen-oriented show a season pass.

The DVR also reveals how lazy you are.  Start with the list of shows that are scheduled to be recorded.  How recently did you update that?  My DVR is still set to record new episodes of “The Office,” not because I think the show will miraculously come back to life, but because I never deleted it from my “shows to record” function.

Another indicator of video slovenliness is how full your “previously recorded” file is.  I’m pretty proud of myself for finally deleting all those unwatched “Daily Shows” that John Oliver hosted last summer – shows I fully intended to view back when Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal was so fresh.   But with the government shutdown sucking all the oxygen out of the room, I eventually admitted to myself that I would never watch them.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t given up on rewatching last season’s “Mad Men,” so there they are, still taking up space while I contemplate whether I can ever bear seeing Don Draper melt down again.

Finally, the DVR can provide some insight into the state of your marriage or family life.  Is one partner hogging all the space?  Does someone “accidentally” delete unwatched shows that the other partner recorded?  Do parents let their kids walk all over them and record dozens of episodes of “Teen Mom”?

Let’s face it. We all watch so much TV that our DVRs are bound to say more about us than we care to admit.  So before you take that next personality test in a magazine or online forum, take a hard look at your DVR.  You might not like what you see.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of hearing about the “Golden Age of Television.”  Like many other cultural tropes, the concept contains an element of truth, but the sheer repetition of the phrase has started to sound self-congratulatory, as if we were geniuses for choosing to live through such an epic era.

The recent conclusion of “Breaking Bad” and the impending finale of “Mad Men” have launched a thousand disquisitions on the current Golden Age of Television, which purportedly materialized when Tony Soprano began confiding in Dr. Jennifer Melfi.   According to the narrative promoted by Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin in their respective books “The Revolution was Televised” and “Difficult Men,” television entered its Golden Age with the arrival of challenging and sophisticated dramas about morally compromised, frequently violent, antiheroes.

Certainly I appreciate the achievements of “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos,” but I wonder if Sepinwall and Martin aren’t overstating it a bit.  “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” would certainly match up with anything in the past 10 years, as would “Upstairs/Downstairs” from the early 1970s.  Even the “vast wasteland” era of the 1960s had “The Fugitive” and “The Twilight Zone.”

But more to the point, the idea that we are now living through a golden age overlooks the huge slice of television that focuses on comedy.  When it comes to humor, there is no such thing as a golden age of television because the entire history of television has been one long golden age.  There’s an almost unbroken string of sitcom excellence, stretching from “I Love Lucy” to “The Andy Griffith Show” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Cheers” to “Seinfeld” to “The Office” to “Modern Family,” with dozens of groundbreaking, hilarious shows in between.

The 1950s were once considered the original golden age of television, because of such respected series as “Playhouse 90” and “Kraft Theatre.”  But no one today would actually sit down and watch those shows for pleasure in the same way they would watch classic “I Love Lucy” reruns.  Humor remains universal and timeless, while dramatic acting styles come in and out of vogue.  What seemed exciting in drama 50 years ago seems dated today, and you have to wonder what our grandchildren will think of “Breaking Bad” and “Man Men” in the 2060s.  Will they seem as histrionic and over-the-top as the award-winning dramas of the 1950s do today?

The other variable that enters any discussion about the Golden Age of Television is viewership.  We have to account for the fact that the acclaimed series constituting the current Golden Age, notwithstanding the surprisingly large audience for the “Breaking Bad” finale, attract mostly niche audiences.  To be sure, these are attractive demographics – well-educated, high-earning viewers – but they are not the mass audience who watched “Roots.”

For all the hoopla about the “Breaking Bad” attracting 10.3 million viewers, that’s still less than the 12.6 million who watched the season premiere of “Duck Dynasty.”  If only the TV critics and the most discerning viewers are watching the best dramas, is that really a “golden age”?  In fact, you could make the case that the percentage of eyeballs watching quality drama has never been lower.

Indeed, the broadcast networks seem to have given up on the idea of delivering high-end dramas to broad audiences, somehow thinking it’s impossible without cursing and sex, which only cable can offer.   For all the talk about the Golden Age of Television, there has not been a great drama on network television since “Lost” and “Friday Night Lights” went off the air.

Once again, comedy is different.  Historically the best sitcoms have gotten the highest ratings.     Sure, there’s the occasional “Two and a Half Men” to prove otherwise, but the funniest sitcoms usually attract the highest audiences.  Even “Seinfeld,” an extremely quirky show about unsympathetic characters, managed to be a huge hit because it was so funny.  Again, that goes to the universality of humor.  Not only does humor not fundamentally change from era to era, it also seems to transcend age, race and gender.

Because high-quality comedies can still generate large audiences, this is one area where the broadcast networks can still compete – and even beat – cable.  Cable delivers challenging and offbeat comedies like “Girls” and “Louie,” (at least I think they are comedies) but the real action for sitcoms still remains on broadcast.  The networks seem to understand this too, given the number of new sitcoms they are premiering this season.

The truth is that the vast majority of television has always been mediocre (the same is true of film and fiction, by the way) but each era has delivered a handful of memorable shows.   “Golden ages” come and go but television — especially television comedy — endures.

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Apparently “Modern Family” is the favorite comedy of the Romney family. At least that’s what the Republican nominee himself said. Of course campaign consultants, trying to signal to moderate voters that he had no particular hang-ups on social issues, may have advised him to say so. But it might have been one of those rare cases where a politician actually spoke truthfully about his personal preferences.

Regardless of whether the Romneys actually watch “Modern Family,” millions of others do. With DVR viewing added in, it’s sometimes the most watched show of the week, often beating even football. And of course it has won boatloads of Emmys. Clearly there’s something in this show that resonates with a wide swath of American society.

Occasionally the claim is made that the show’s popularity reflects the complexities of modern America. One of the most withering critiques of the GOP in 2012 was that it was a “’Mad Man’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ world.” “Modern Family,” in other words, supposedly represents where we are today.

The show follows an extended family made up of three households: a paterfamilias with a young Latina wife and a stepson; his daughter and her family; and his gay son and his family. What’s “modern” about the family is that one character is divorced with a trophy wife, while a second character is a partnered gay man with an adopted Asian daughter.

“Modern Family” is an absolutely great show, but not because of its sociology or commentary on the modern condition. It’s great because the writing, plotting, and characterizations herald top-quality professionalism. Each show is beautifully constructed, fast-paced and terrifically funny. The humor is not aggressive, sarcastic, intended to shock or built on cheap one-liners. The jokes almost always grow out of the personal shortcomings of the all-too-human characters, who are constantly being deflated by their own foibles.

You can tell “Modern Family” is a great show because, like “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” it has no imitators. There is no formula to imitate other than to assemble the industry’s best writers and producers and set them loose. Oh sure, the little lamented “The New Normal” featured a gay couple, a surrogate mother and assorted other colorful characters, but no one would claim it was anything like “Modern Family.”

Despite claims about its social relevance, “Modern Family” is fundamentally a deeply conservative show. It’s not modern or cutting edge in the way that “Louie” or “Girls” are. It’s a show that’s very satisfied with the status quo.

The show’s emphasis on the importance of “family” would not be out of step in a 1950s sitcom. Nor would its apparent belief that a family can solve every problem if they’d just open up and be honest with each other. There are plenty of tensions on “Modern Family,” but no dysfunction. Every show has a heart-warming resolution where a minor conflict is smoothed over. If only real families could be like this!

“Modern Family” is also unusually conservative in its approach to sexuality, which has been domesticated and rendered passionless. Given that there are only mild sex jokes and no distasteful double-entendres, no one except the most extreme prude would feel uncomfortable watching this show. There are some goofy situations where sex is innocently hinted at, but no one is in danger of being titillated from “Modern Family.”

In fact, the show is so tame that it has drawn fire from some gay advocacy groups for its airbrushed depiction of gay life. Cam and Mitchell, the gay couple, never kiss, lounge around in bed together, allude to the fact that they have a sex life, or do anything at all that might make some members of the audience feel uncomfortable. And although they are currently engaged to be married, following the roll-back of California’s Proposition 8, the show had never shown any previous interest in same-sex marriage.

But where “Modern Family” is really not modern is in its approach to class. Everyone on the show is upper-middle-class, with few economic worries. The families are so well-off that the two mothers and one of the gay dads stay home to care for the kids. In a world of single parents, broken homes, and two-paycheck families where the spouses fight over who drops off the kids at daycare, “Modern Family” depicts an idealized world of comfort and security. In this regard, “Roseanne” was much more modern 20 years ago than “Modern Family” is now.

Having said that, “Modern Family” creators seem to understand that the main obligation of any television show is to provide as much entertainment as possible for the greatest number of people. A sitcom is not a Ken Burns documentary and no show needs to speak for the entirety of American society. “Modern Family” deserves all its accolades for being a series that amuses millions of people — and one that, as the cliché goes, can be watched by the whole family. But let’s not overpraise it. It’s not really a reflection of the modern family