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Monthly Archives: September 2017

Football nfl_120607_wg

Here we go again.  We’re only a couple of weeks into the new football season and already everyone’s wringing their hands over the state of America’s favorite sport and television’s most important broadcasting product.

The games are uninspired, the ratings are weak, the players are domestic abusers, and the President of the United States is calling for a boycott.  This is a major issue for television because football is one of the last places where advertisers can reliably expect men to watch their ads in real time.  Football is also one of the remaining rationales that many families give themselves for not cutting the cord (even though most games could be watched live over-the-air).

This is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago when it football was still gaining in popularity and appeared to be television’s bulwark against the encroachments of the digital world. Of course what goes up must come down and it was inevitable that some marginal fans would eventually peel off and move onto the next big fad, but football’s decline has been so precipitous that it can’t all be the fickleness of fans.

Many of the explanations offered this year are the same as they were last year.  For example, the Colin Kaepernick National Anthem protest against alleged police racism metastasized to a full-blown political controversy during the off-season when Kaepernick couldn’t land a job, even as a back-up quarterback.

This has put the NFL in the worst possible situation.  The (mostly conservative) white men who are the sport’s core base are still furious that football allowed itself to get embroiled in a political correctness controversy in the first place.  But black activists and the media keep the controversy alive by alleging that the NFL owners have conspired not to hire the one-time Super Bowl winner because he’s become such a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter issue.  No one was happy – and that was even before President Trump has weighed in with his usual brew of grievance, divisiveness and vitriol.

It’s a surprise it took Trump this long to recognize that the anthem boycotters were pushing a hit button.  I would guess that he doesn’t even follow football so didn’t appreciate the furor until ESPN’s Jemele Hill’s ESPN called him a racist, which launched a feud with ESPN that spilled over into football itself. Regardless of why he decided to take on the NFL, his comments threaten to cause schisms in America’s one true religion – watching football on Sunday.

NFL-Defiance-

But if the National Anthem imbroglio is turning off fans who don’t want to think about politics while they’re watching football, the ongoing revelations about the impact of football-related concussions is turning off fans who worry about the their own personal morality.  These fans always knew that football was violent but it wasn’t until players started publicly dying of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that they began to ponder their own complicity in cheering each violent hit.  And it didn’t help when Tom Brady’s wife revealed that even he’d suffered concussions, leaving us to contemplate the specter one of the country’s most glamorous athletes not being able to remember his name some day.

It’s not that Americans have suddenly become pacifists, though.  The biggest sporting event of the summer (if you can call it that) was the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight, in which millions of Americans paid $90 to watch a retired prizefighter pummel a mixed martial arts fighter who’d never boxed before.  Given the gimmicky nature of the pairing no one could claim to be enjoying the “sweet science” of finesse, balance and strategy that supposedly lends a patina of respectability to boxing. Nope, this was straight-up bloodlust.

If anything, football’s problem with violence isn’t that it’s too violent but that its near monopoly on controlled aggression has been broken.  For years, Sunday was the one day of the week when working stiffs could get a catharsis by watching other guys brutalize each other on the gridiron. Sure, there was the occasional spinal cord-severing injury that resulted a player becoming a lifelong quadriplegic, but in general, the players reveled in hitting and being hit and the viewers loved it watching. Somehow, having the players wear helmets and pads kept us from feeling bad about the three or four players who needed to be carried off the field each game.

But as any casual view of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead” knows, there’s a lot more violence on entertainment television now than there is in sports.  To say nothing about video games or YouTube videos where you can watch an actual, not just a metaphorical, beheading.  And social media now enables frustrated guys to channel their rage as Internet trolls when they might have simply spent Sunday afternoons yelling “Yes!” every time someone on the opposing team was knocked unconscious.

Football isn’t going anywhere, but it seems passé compared to basketball.  The league’s owners, led by their doofus Commissioner, seem out of touch and concerned only with protecting their investment.  Football will probably remain television’s biggest draw for years to come but it also seems to have entered a period of slow decline.  Whether that will be good for the soul of America is an open question but it will definitely be bad for television.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Twin Peaks the Return

Twenty-six years ago David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” broke the mold for what a television series could be. No one had ever seen anything like it, but in the ensuing 26 years the rest of the television universe almost caught up with Lynch, creating dozens of high-quality, mysterious, quirky shows like “Lost,” “Fargo” and “True Detective” that were imbued with the “Twin Peaks” DNA.

When Lynch agreed to produce one more season of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, his fans wondered whether he’d try to top himself or settle for a nostalgic update of the beloved characters’ lives (as in, say, “The Gilmore Girls”).  Well, “Twin Peaks: The Return” wrapped up on Showtime last weekend and I can safely say that once again Lynch has delivered something that’s never been seen on television before.  I definitely don’t understand what it is I just saw or what Lynch was trying to say except that it was profoundly emotional, beautiful, perplexing and spellbinding.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” seemed to be about the age-old battle between good and evil with a heavy dose of free-form spirituality.  Somewhat surprisingly, Lynch seems to embrace old fashioned traditional values.  Sinners who give themselves up to lust, greed, cruelty, misogyny, or drug-use rarely come to a happy end, and the old-fashioned virtues of love, kindness and bravery usually triumph, even in a world of profound pain.  For all their thrashing around, evil people are frustrated in their desires.

But if the themes are old fashioned, Lynch’s storytelling techniques are revolutionary – for television at least.  With “Twin Peaks: The Returned” he essentially introduces modernism to television.  Modernism as a philosophy and aesthetic has been around for over a hundred years, of course.   Think of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which nearly caused a riot at its premiere. Or T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or anything by Picasso.  Modernists believed that traditional forms of art were insufficient to tell stories in the modern age and created new, often-head-scratching techniques to communicate the absurdity of the 20th century.

As the most mass of the mass mediums, television never had a modernist period.  With limited broadcast time and the expense of supporting nation-wide networks, television almost always opted for traditional storytelling, falling back on increasingly tired tropes developed by cinema and the stage.

Lynch began to introduce some modernist touches with the original “Twin Peaks”: a dream world with a dancing dwarf, a one-armed man, a giant, and other creatures from another dimension who talked backwards.  Plus all that complicated plotting, languorous pacing, eerie shots of stoplights.  But as weird as some of that was, the show still stuck to standard plot- and character-driven driven story structures.

With “Twin Peaks: The Return” Lynch smashed all traditional storytelling.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he delivered two different series under the rubric of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”  One was a more comprehensible story that climaxed at the end of episode 17 in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office.  The other was a meditation on death and reality that culminated with a second ending in episode 18 that seemed designed to satisfy only David Lynch himself.

Lynch’s most obvious innovation was the show’s glacial pacing.  He submitted a script that would normally be shot in nine episodes but ended up being stretched out twice as long.  As viewers, we’ve become accustomed to faster and more frenetic cuts, but in the new series Lynch would let the camera linger past the limit of what you would have thought was the breaking point of your patience.  The very first scene in the first episode shows a young man watching an empty box.  Depending on your perspective, this was either mind-numbingly boring or mesmerizing, which is why I ended up watching the series alone after my wife quickly bailed out.

But the slow pace was nothing compared to the surreal symbolism, weird fixation on dreams and numerology, depiction of evil spirits, and most of all, the Black and White Lodges, those extra-dimensional spaces of good and evil that seem to have some kind of connection to Native American mythology.  For sheer craziness, probably nothing on TV will ever match episode eight, which turned out to be the “Twin Peaks” creation story. The episode is impossible to describe except to say that it includes extraterrestrial creatures, the birth of the atomic age, flying orbs of good and evil, profound disorientation, and the Nine Inch Heels.

He also introduced dozens of characters who appeared in just one scene, only to have them disappear just when we began to care about them.  Ultimately, if you wanted to survive the show you could only stop thinking and give yourself up to the experience itself.

Will the new “Twin Peaks” usher in a wave of experimental television?  Clearly new business models are emerging that would support it.  Showtime’s CEO and President David Nevins told TheRinger.com’s Andy Greenwald that the show was a business success – even with tiny linear ratings — because it drove more new subscriptions than any show in the network’s history. I hope future showrunners take the right lesson from this, though.  It’s not enough to be weird.  David Lynch is a supremely talented filmmaker with a strong moral and artistic vision who was willing to do some fan service to keep viewers happy, but ultimately delivered the show he wanted to create.

In the end, I think “Twin Peaks,” will be a unique television experience. Many shows have returned after long absences but only David Lynch had the ability, clout, fan base and imagination to deliver a very personal but perplexing artistic vision that strayed far from the core of the original series.  There just aren’t that many artists who can pull this off.