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Monthly Archives: August 2014

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Nerds seem to having their cultural moment.  “The Big Bang Theory,” a show about four nerds and the women who love them, is the highest-rated scripted show on television and its star Jim Parsons has won four Emmys. “Silicon Valley,” a show about four nerds and their attempt to succeed in the high tech world, is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed new shows.   Then there’s AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” a show about 1980s computer programmers, and even a reality show – TBS’s “King of the Nerds.”

Yep, nerds seem to be popular, which is an oxymoron if there ever was one, because the quintessential nerd characteristic is alienation from mainstream society.  Yet people who are definitely not nerds are only too happy to proclaim their nerddom.  The White House Correspondents Dinner, the annual gathering of powerful Washington insiders and influential correspondents, has been (ridiculously) self-dubbed the “Nerd Prom.”  And any Hollywood starlet who has every read a book is likely to exclaim, “I’m such a nerd.” In fact, the website Filmdrunk compiled a whole clip reel of actresses claiming to be nerds.

Let’s establish what a nerd is and isn’t.  Although many nerds are smart, mere brilliance or intellectual ability is not what makes you a nerd.  One of the smartest characters to ever appear on television was the teen super-genius Malcolm from “Malcolm in the Middle” but he was no nerd.  Similarly, the evil chemistry genius Walter White on “Breaking Bad” was certainly not a nerd.

True nerds are obsessive or socially impaired; they focus too intently on offbeat interests or take mainstream activities like fantasy fiction, comic books and video games to the uber-extreme.  They are generally physically uncoordinated and shy, and generally have problems connecting with the opposite sex.  Nerds are sometimes thought to have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome –  in the case of Abed on “Community” there’s a very clear connection between nerdiness and being “on the spectrum” – but there are others who argue against that diagnosis because nerds can at least socialize with each other.

Prior to “Big Bang,” the most famous nerd on television was Steve Urkel of “Family Matters,” an African American teen with thick glasses, high pants and squeaky voice.  Urkel exhibited some classic nerd behaviors, including intelligence, physical awkwardness and poor social skills, he was too confident, optimistic and good-natured to be a true nerd.  Similarly, Dwight Schrute on “The Office” had nerdy obsessions and poor interpersonal skills, but he was even more self-confident than Urkel, and, unlike most nerds, fairly successful with women.

In fact, actual nerds, like the guys in “Big Bang” and Silicon Alley,” have been in short supply on television.  Television is run by those two other high school stereotypes: the popular kids/athletes, who become studio executives, and the moody sensitive wise guys, who become the writers.  Nerds are as rare in the entertainment industry as football quarterbacks who play dungeons and dragons and if you’re not in the room when programming decisions get made, nobody’s going to do a TV series about you.

I think television has also been reluctant to feature nerd characters because of the danger of piling on a vulnerable group.  Nerdiness is seen as a form of social disability and making fun of nerds triggers guilty feelings among adults who might not have been as sensitive as teens as they are now.  Making a nerd seem ridiculous is almost as bad as mocking a blind person or someone in a wheelchair.

Where “Big Bang” succeeds is in spoofing nerdy behavior in a sweet way, while not making the characters losers. In the “Big Bang” universe, nerdy behavior is the norm, not something weird and contemptible.  And it’s funny, in that three-camera, laugh-track, mainstream kind of way.

The recent emergence of nerds on television is almost certainly related to their increasing power and prestige in the economy.  As the writer Charles J. Sykes put it, “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them.” The country’s most exciting companies, all of which seem to be technology firms, were founded by and are run by nerds: Google, Facebook, Apple, Facebook, Twitter.  These are the Fords, Cokes and DuPonts of today.

The richest man in America is also our nerd-in-chief.  Somehow having $72 billion dollars in the bank makes nerdiness look a little more attractive, but Bill Gates’ recent video on the Ice Bucket Challenge showed that he can also parody his own nerd character when he wants to.

Fame, fortune, high ratings; can we expect more nerds on TV?  Given the copycat nature of television, I’d be very surprised if someone doesn’t look at the huge success of “The Big Bang Theory,” and try to rip it off.  But they better be careful.  There’s an insatiable appetite for shows about good-looking people and clever people because that’s who people want to be.  Today’s nerds might be rich, but few viewers would actually aspire to be nerdier than they already are.  Most guys would rather hit a major league home run than design a home computer.  I’m guessing that television’s appetite for nerds is nearing satiety.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My youth was the era of “My Mother the Car,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island,” and the idea that television could be serious art seemed laughable.  Sure, there had been a “Golden Age” of television in the 1950s, with shows like “Kraft Theater,” “The Honeymooners” and “Your Show of Shows,” but those days seemed long past.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s intellectuals bemoaned the rise of “mass culture.”  There were said to be mass-produced, entertainment commodities like TV and movies, which cultural critic Dwight MacDonald claimed relied on “vulgarity, kitsch, homogeneity and standardization to distract and narcotize an alienated industrial society.”

Yet here we are today in a second Golden Age when it’s possible to argue that the once-derided medium of television has emerged as the most vibrant and exciting art form of the 21st Century.  What would challenge its dominance?  Film has become obsessed with blockbusters, the novel with small, self-absorbed stories, and the theatre with pyrotechnics.  Opera, ballet and classical music are stuck in the 19th century, and most people couldn’t name a living poet even if you promised them a winning Power Ball ticket.

Given Dwight MacDonald’s aversion to capitalism, it’s ironic that free-market competition created the conditions for great television programming.  When there were only three major broadcast networks, each sought the biggest possible audience through the lowest common denominator. But the rise of cable has created a wide-open field for all kinds of programming. Some networks went for trash and others courted discriminating viewers.

In Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution Was Televised,” AMC President Charlie Collier explains that creating a high-end, must-see show was critical to the long-term health of the network.  AMC knew that without distinctive programming it could not attract high carriage fees or be sure that cable companies would carry it at all.  This straightforward business calculation led directly to the creation of one of the greatest TV shows ever: “Mad Men.”

But even while acknowledging that television has dramatically improved (in some areas), some critics don’t want to consider it “high art.”  In many respects, this is a silly argument to engage in.  Who cares if television is “high art,” “middlebrow,” “mass art” or one of the “plastic arts,” as long as it provides aesthetic pleasure and self-insight to a discerning audience?

Yet critics’ hesitation to label TV as aesthetically serious raises some questions about how we analyze TV drama. The first argument against TV as high art is the open-ended nature of a TV series.  A producer can’t develop a full narrative arc to match the length of a newly launched show without knowing if it will last one or 10 years.  A work of art needs a beginning, middle and end, but if there’s no way to know when the end is, you are basically making it up as you go along. Some shows handle this better than others, creating a season’s worth of episodes that can stand on their own as a coherent whole even if the show is canceled at the end of the season.

But most can’t plan more than a few episodes ahead, which sometimes leads to a huge whiff when the time comes to end the series (I’m talking to you, “Lost”). This can cast a pall over the entire body of work.  (Although it’s probably fair to point out that the greatest American novel — “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — has one of the worst endings in literature, because Mark Twain hadn’t fleshed out his ideas when he started the book.)

Television is also said to fail as high art because it has no “author.”  How do you evaluate an artist’s vision when you don’t know who the artist is?  A novel has an author, an opera has a composer, a movie has a director, but a television series has a showrunner, whose job is to wrangle cats and run interference from the network.  A showrunner will write a couple of episodes, direct a couple of episodes, but given how much work is involved in producing a show every week, he or she can’t control every aspect of the production.

It’s no coincidence that the greatest shows have the best showrunners. Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), David Chase (“The Sopranos”) and Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) may not have written every line of dialogue on their shows, but they imposed their vision and are as much the authors of these works of art as any New Wave director is of his films. In the end, we have to evaluate a work of art by what’s on the screen, not by the creative process.  Would anyone claim that Gothic cathedrals aren’t works of art even though we don’t know who “authored” their creation?

By any definition, television has vaulted into the realm of serious art.  The best shows of the past decade have wrestled with serious and difficult questions in a compelling way.  They’ve been complicated, psychologically insightful, life-affirming inquiries into the human condition.  To me, that seems like high art.

Gary Holmes Photography Caelan-Dillon-Physique

It’s the dirty little secret of the Internet Era that sooner or later you’ll type your name into Google Search to see what comes up. You can’t help but wonder if you’re just a teensy bit famous, at least in your own little world.  And of course you’ll want to know what people are saying about you so you can drive yourself batty trying to correct the record.

I was recently interviewed by a reporter and I’ve been searching for the article to see how I’m quoted. Because I’ve been Googling my name more than usual, I can’t help but notice how many other Gary Holmeses there are in the world.  I also can’t help but notice the photos that pop up under “Images for Gary Holmes”: several pictures of a middle-aged white guy, several pictures of a young African American man and one photo of a naked woman.

It turns out that that the white dude is a remarkably successful real estate tycoon in Minnesota; he’s so rich that he endowed the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota.  The young black Gary Holmes is a football player in Florida.   And the photo of the naked woman is an example of the work done by a well-known photographer in Australia (see photo above for an example of his work.  That’s not a self-portrait, in case there is any question.)

So at best I’m the fourth most famous Gary Holmes.  I can live with that as long as that football player doesn’t become super-famous in a Tom Brady kind of way.  I’m sure there are a lot of Tom Bradys out there, all of whom, every time they are introduced are subject to raised eyebrows, smirks and idiotic questions. I once knew a lawyer in Washington named William Clinton – no joke.  His professional life was seriously complicated when Bubba came to town and sucked up all the Clinton-related oxygen.  I don’t know whatever happened to that other William Clinton because it’s impossible to Google him and not get references to the former Prez, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he started going by his middle name.

The advent of the Internet has obviously brought us a lot closer – sometimes to the point that we’re piling on top of each other.  In the early days of AOL – back when it was a legitimate email address, equivalent to what Gmail is today – I snagged the email address garyholmes@aol.com.  It seems the previous had given it up for reasons that became clear only later.  Soon I started to get email addressed to that other Gary Holmes.  I once received a heartfelt “Dear Gary” email from his mother affirming that the family knew he was going through difficult times because he was in jail and so forth, but that they all stood by him.  It must have been a large extended family because they kept including me on mass emails for family reunions, viral jokes and community news.  I tried to get off these mailing lists but it took at least two years – probably that’s when the other Gary Holmes got out of prison.

This raises the issue of how dangerous it can be to have the name of a criminal. As I recently scrolled down the list of Gary Holmeses, I came across this extremely disturbing headline from the Huffington Post: “Gary L. Holmes Arrested For Beating, Raping Coral Springs Mom As Baby Lay Nearby.”  Another felonious Gary Holmes! (This guy was only 19 so couldn’t have been the convicted Gary Holmes who had my AOL address 15 years ago.)

We’ve all heard stories of people who can’t pass airport security or get a mortgage because someone with the same name is a suspected terrorist or jaywalking scofflaw. That’s why I’m glad the headline writer included the middle initial of the alleged rapist.  That “L” helps differentiate me from a sexual predator.  In fact, it occurs to me now that’s probably why the news media usually refer to famous assassins and mass murderers by three names (Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman, etc.) – to prevent confusion with the innocent Lee Oswalds and Mark Chapmans.

If I were younger and more concerned about my personal brand, I might deploy some search engine optimization tactics to move myself up in the Gary Holmes rankings.  Maybe I’d even write a blog!  But that seems like a lot of work just to claw myself up to the position as the third most-famous Gary Holmes.  Certainly I have more important priorities – like getting more Twitter followers or Facebook friends.