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Monthly Archives: November 2015

MYTHBUSTERS

When Discovery announced the cancellation of “MythBusters” after 14 seasons, I sent a wistful email to my 24-year-old son, alerting him that one of our former favorite shows was approaching its final experiment.  He responded somewhat less nostalgically: “I can’t believe that show is still on! How can there be any myths left to bust?”

And indeed, it turns out that by the time the series is complete, “MythBusters” will have conducted 2,950 experiments to test the validity of 1,050 myths.   But if my son wasn’t elegiac in his response, I, for one, will be sorry to see “MythBusters” go, reminding me as it does of my days as an active father.

My wife and I were traditionalists.  We were the kind of parents who worried about the deleterious impact of video games on young minds, so we limited our son’s screen time to the seemingly more brain-nurturing experience of watching mass-market television.  It’s not as easy as you’d think, however, to find age-appropriate television programming when your kids outgrow “SpongeBob Square Pants” but are not yet ready for “The Walking Dead.”

Since we only had the one son, lived in a compact house, and never permitted a television in his room, my wife and I were generally able to monitor my son’s viewing habits through the simple process of watching TV with him.

Some of the shows we watched together were scripted programs: “Seinfeld” reruns (an absolute must), “Malcom in the Middle,” “Bernie Mac,” and other shows that featured tween kids.  Somehow my wife even got him watching “7th Heaven,” CW’s wholesome family soap opera, which I could never stomach.

As the dad, I particular enjoyed watching three reality show created by men, featuring men, and apparently targeted at others with the XY chromosome, irrespective of age.  These were the aforementioned “MythBusters,” as well as “Pawn Stars” and “The Deadliest Catch.”  (And yes, while I realize some women and girls watch these shows, they exemplify values that a father would particularly like to share with his son.)

Of the three, “MythBusters,” with its occasional female science assistants, tried the hardest to appeal to girls and debunk the myth that only nerdy boys liked science.  But in the end, the show’s entertainment value relied on explosions (over 900 in nearly 250 episodes), car stunts, rockets, danger and other elements that appeal to 10-year-old boys.

The series has rightly been praised for teaching the scientific method (i.e., demonstrating how you develop and then test a hypothesis). I wouldn’t go as far as the New York Times did in asserting that the show “transformed science and education” —  but it did teach a generation of students how to think logically and creatively. And it made science literacy fun in our family.

“Pawn Stars,” the series about the multigenerational family who runs a pawn shop in Las Vegas, is a winner for tween boys on two accounts.  It teaches history through the artifacts that are presented to them for sale — but more important, it teaches the basics of economics and the need to be both disciplined and honest in business affairs.

Time and again, patrons bring in items that the pawn shop owners personally crave (Civil War pistols, 1950s juke boxes, Napoleonic-era swords) but won’t buy unless they know they can sell it for a profit.

These mini-lessons in microeconomics are important for kids who are just starting to think about what they want to be when they grow up.

There’s another important lesson on the show too: the grandpa who founded the store, the dad who runs it now, and the son who expects to run it someday in the future provide a lot of intra-family conflict and wise-assery.  It’s good for sons to know they can disagree with their dads and still maintain a loving relationship.

The third show my son and I used to watch — “The Deadliest Catch” — is the most masculine of these three shows, but also the most raw emotionally.  It’s a standard reality show following the lives of Alaskan king crab fisherman as they troll in the often-tumultuous Bering Sea.  The cameras follow the crew of several crab boats facing danger from gale winds, high seas, slippery decks, and their own mistake-prone natures.

“Deadliest Catch” is a story of bravery to be sure, but also about the discipline and teamwork necessary to survive on a fishing boat. And because the captains are a main focus of the series, “The Deadliest Catch” also provides a lesson in leadership.

Discipline, logical thinking, bravery, leadership, delayed gratification, compromise and flexibility: all these values are celebrated on these shows.  None of them are explicitly designed to be teaching tools for young boys — but at a time when boys seem to be in crisis, you can do a lot worse than plopping down in front of the TV with your son and enjoying a good explosion, a tough negotiation or some old-fashioned crab fishing.

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When Stephen Colbert inherited the “Late Show” franchise from David Letterman, the critics generally agreed to reserve judgment until the show had had enough time to evolve into what it would eventually become.

Two months and approximately 40 shows later, it seems clear that it doesn’t need time to evolve.  It’s already pretty great, having arrived fully formed after months of planning by Colbert and his staff.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is how similar it is to “The Colbert Report,” his previous outing on Comedy Central.  Yes, the budget is bigger, it’s twice as long, and Colbert no longer plays an airhead conservative character — but it’s the same basic show, revolving around Colbert’s humorous riffs on subjects that interest him (mostly politics and the news), his interviews with a diverse array of guests, and an eclectic mix of musical guests.

Late-night television has become so encrusted with tradition that it’s impossible to vary a talk show too much beyond the standard man-behind-the-desk format.  Colbert’s major innovation is to return the late-night format to what it was before Johnny Carson.  The joke-punchline-joke-punchline monologue is out.  The new monologue is a three-minute extended meditation on an issue of the day.  Also out are silly recurring bits — Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent or Letterman’s urban adventures with Rupert Jee Indeed, Colbert never ventures outside the studio and has not introduced any signature characters.

Perhaps the biggest throwback to the pre-Carson late-night show of Jack Paar and Steve Allen is the guest list.  There’s a sense that here you can experience the huge smorgasbord of American culture.  Yes, there are plenty of stars from CBS TV series and upcoming moves, but at least Colbert engages them intelligently.  When Carey Mulligan turned up to plug her movie “Suffragette,” the ensuing conversation focused on the actual substance of the movie — the womens’ suffrage movement in Great Britain — and not an irrelevant story about Mulligan’s latest vacation.

Colbert seems to have made a special effort to attract high tech entrepreneurs: guys like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Uber’s Travis Kalanick.  It’s an election year, so politicians have also featured heavily on the show, including five presidential candidates so far.  Colbert himself is clearly politically liberal but he’s provided a fair platform for Republican candidates too, going so far as to chide his audience when they booed an answer by Ted Cruz.  He even made Donald Trump seem human, which I would not have thought possible.  And of course he famously and sensitively interviewed Vice President Joe Biden on the death of his son Beau.

Culturally the musical guests have ranged from country (Toby Keith) to classical (Misty Copeland dancing to Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 2 with Yo-Yo Ma) to indie rock (Alabama Shakes). The show has also welcomed high-end authors like Jonathan Franzen and Stacy Schiff.

Through it all, Colbert has insisted that “Late Show” is a comedy show first, and he definitely works hard to maintain high spirits.  He enters each show to the buoyant music of his band leader Jon Batiste, sometimes high-kicking (see gif above for proof) and sometimes just waving and grinning.  I am especially inspirited by Batiste’s intro, which is the greatest thematic celebration of New York City since the early days of “Saturday Night Live.”

Another retro feature of “The Late Show” is that Colbert appears to eschew social-media clickbait.  Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have excelled at producing funny bite-sized bits that go viral on Facebook and Twitter.  Colbert either hasn’t tried or hasn’t succeeded in mastering the social media game. ListenFirst Media, which measures television-based social and digital activity through its Digital Audience Rating-TV metric, reports that with a DAR-TV of 45.9 million, Colbert was a distant fourth digitally among late-night shows during the month of October, well behind Fallon (a DAR-TV of 214.5 million) and Kimmel (a DAR-TV of 115.3 million), and even behind Conan O’Brien (a DAR-TV of 50.3 million).

Colbert is doing better in traditional ratings.  According to Nielsen, over the first seven weeks, Fallon maintained his dominant position, with an average of 3.5 million nightly viewers, while Colbert was runner-up, with 3.0 million viewers. Kimmel trailed at 2.3 million viewers.  These are live/same day numbers and don’t account for people like me who record and watch the next day or later. (By the way, what’s interesting about these Nielsen numbers is that only a third of the audience is in the 18-49 demographic, meaning that two-thirds of live late-night viewing is either from teenagers or the AARP-eligible.)

As much as I love Colbert on “The Late Show,” I worry that he might be too brainy.  When discussing memoir-writing with Elvis Costello, he casually dropped a quote from the late David Carr.  How many people in the audience could identify Carr as a New York Times media columnist, or understand the reference?  That’s a very small thing, but it shows that Colbert is operating on a much higher plane than most of us.

Frankly, I like it that Colbert doesn’t talk down to his audience and assumes we’ll enjoy listening to Yo-Yo Ma as well as Darlene Love.  Nielsen’s ratings roll in every day, so we’ll know soon enough whether this experiment in intelligent programming will pay off in the long term.

Bonanza-Cartwrights

One of the most clichéd observations about contemporary television is that we’re blessed to be living in a new Golden Age of TV. And as sick as I am of hearing it, who am I to disagree?  If you define a Golden Age as an era when there are many excellent shows, then we are clearly enjoying one; viewers can’t even hope to keep up with all the shows they want to watch.

But to appreciate a Golden Age, it helps to understand the “bronze” ages too: those periods when TV wasn’t good enough to even be considered silver.  These were periods when the programming was tired and unimaginative, and it was a drag to watch TV.

The bronzest of the Bronze Ages were the 1960s: the period in which television was famously identified as a “vast wasteland” by FCC Chair Newton Minow.  I’d nominate the 1961-62 season as the single worst season in TV history.   The year was dominated by bland westerns (“Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke’) and middle-of-the-road variety shows (hosted by Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore and Mitch Miller).  Only two series redeemed that year: the eerie “Twilight Zone” and the charming “Andy Griffith Show.”

There’s always a danger of “presentism” when judging the cultural tastes of the past.  After all, who are we to second-guess what our ancestors watched?  But in the ‘60s, most people knew they were watching junk.  After all, they had just lived through the original Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, which featured hilarious comedies like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” zany sketch shows like “Your Show or Shows” and “Texaco Star Theatre,” and innovative dramas like “Kraft Television Theatre.”

The ‘60s were bland because the creative brilliance of the ‘50s had been tamed and bureaucratized.  The three networks had a monopoly on TV programming, and each wanted to appeal to the largest possible audience: in other words, the lowest common denominator.  No one wins brownie points for innovation and good taste in an environment like that.

Some of the most idiotic shows in TV history (e.g., “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island”) blossomed during this period.  Yet as the decade wore on, interesting new shows also debuted (i.e., “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Fugitive”); by 1970, TV was poised for another glorious period.  In the early 1970s the CBS Saturday lineup itself constituted a new Golden Age of Television with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All In the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

And so the cycle has continued since then: periods of innovation and imagination followed by stagnation and lowest common denominator.  The great shows of the early 1970s gave way to pabulum like “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Barnaby Jones” — and then at the end of the decade, another creative upswing with innovative shows like the prime-time soap opera “Dallas,” and the sensitive sitcom “”Taxi.”

The arrival of cable networks like HBO and CNN and, especially, competition from the new Fox network in 1986, broke the programming monopoly of the big three networks and forced them to compete with more cutting-edge programing.  Not surprisingly, the late ‘80s and early ’90s offered some of the best shows in TV history.  And in truth, since then there has never been a year without at least a handful of great shows.

Yet I’d like to propose one last Bronze Age of Television.  The 2000-2001 season offered numerous excellent shows, but few of them with outstanding ratings: “NYPD Blue,” “The Sopranos,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Malcom in the Middle,” etc. In fact, the top-rated shows that year set a worrisome pattern.  The number-one rated series was “Survivor,” the first true reality TV show.  “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the first prime-time game show since the 1960s, was a top-20 performer on five different nights of the week.  Procedurals such as “CSI” and “Law and Order,” the very definition of comfortable, unchallenging television, also dominated the ratings.

Whether consciously or not, the new millennium was the period when the networks began to cede the market for quality dramas to cable, where sexual content and swearing flourished. There were some last great hurrahs for the broadcast networks in the 2000s, including “Lost,” “24” and “Friday Night Lights,” but today the source of great TV drama is cable or the Internet.

So here we are today in the current Golden Age of Television.  FOX CEO John Landgraf recently turned that famous complaint by Minow on its head.  Instead of complaining about a vast wasteland on TV, Landgraf lamented that there was TOO MUCH TV.  That seems like a strange thing to worry about — except when you remember that every previous Golden Age has ended with a letdown of general mediocrity.  Are we poised for that now?

As Landgraf notes, there is not enough talent to go around to produce 400 good scripted TV shows.  Networks might be tempted to fall back on proven but tired formulas.  I hope we don’t fall into another Bronze Age and have to look back on the early 2010s as the good old days.