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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.

 

 

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Last year Deloitte reported that 73 percent of Americans binge on television programming.  This report was dutifully publicized by the media despite being either: 1) obviously wrong, or 2) meaningless.

At a time when only two-thirds of Americans have high-speed Internet how can three-quarters of them be binging?  As it turned out this was an online survey that excluded those viewers most likely not to binge, so it was maybe not exactly representative.  Also, binging was defined as having watched three episodes of show in one sitting, presumably even just once — a remarkably low bar.

Under this definition, people have always binged TV.  Most cable channels have run 24-hour marathons of favorite series that easily allow you to spend a couple of hours watching many episodes of the same show.  Further, ever since the days of VCRs, you could record your favorite shows and watch them in bulk.  So watching a lot of episodes of one show in a single sitting is not new.

But that’s not binge-watching as currently understood.  According to the dictionary, binging is as “an act of excessive or compulsive consumption.”  It is associated primarily with food or alcohol – and not in a good way.  If you can’t stop eating or drinking you’ll be sick.

In other words, binge-watching is a compulsive, addictive experience like eating salted peanuts. True binge-watching requires two elements: serialized multi-episode narratives, complete with cliff-hangers; and a technological solution that enables easy serial viewing on the consumer’s timetable.

Those trends came together about five years ago, between Part One and Part Two of the final season of “Breaking Bad,” when millions of non-viewers collectively realized they could catch up on the first four-and-a-half seasons by streaming them on Netflix during the interregnum before the launch of the second half of the season.   Soon after that Netflix launched “House of Cards,” and, instead of making the episodes available week by week, dropped all 13 of them at once.  Since then Amazon has adopted the drop-them-all-at once model too and the libraries of the pay-TV channels like HBO and Showtime have all become available for binging.

While I appreciate the virtues of immediate gratification and will sometimes binge if given the opportunity (as I did with last summer’s “Stranger Things”), I appreciate and prefer a traditional week-by-week roll-out, especially for a high-quality show.  There’s something delicious about the anticipation of waiting a week for the airing of the next episode. A once-a-week show becomes a collective experience you can share with your friends and others.  You can live tweet it as it’s being aired, read the recaps the next day, listen to the podcasts, and talk about it at work around the digital water cooler.

None of that is possible with a binged show.  I’ve never once read a recap or listened to a podcast about a Netflix show.  And you can’t even talk about it with friends until everyone’s finished the season.

There’s an artistic problem with binging too.  It’s nearly impossible to absorb all the information that’s being thrown at you if you watch multiple episodes at once.  My family watched the last five episodes of “Justified” over two nights and the next day I could only remember the final ten minutes of that sprint to the end.

Netflix has its own very successful business model, to be sure, but I think history has shown that the best way to build popularity for any show is through word of mouth, which is a lot easier with a show that everyone’s talking about at the same time.

We only have to look at “Game of Thrones” to see how it works.  It wouldn’t be half as popular if all ten episodes per season were dumped simultaneously.   What made GOT a sensation was its slow build through on-one-one conversations and a steady two-month barrage of tweets and media references.   When a show like “Game of Thrones” captures the public’s imagination, audience interest builds toward a climax at the end of the season.  This is in contrast to almost all Netflix series, in which “buzz” peaks soon after the series is released.

There are, of course, exceptions like “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” or “Transparent,” which showed that word of mouth can work for bingeable shows too, but there are hundreds of other Netflix and Amazon series that never enter the public consciousness because they are watched only by their targeted niche audiences.

That might make good business sense for the streaming services but for those of us who have never heard of them, it’s a lost opportunity.

Clearly binging is here to stay because it’s so popular in our impatient society.  Still, take a minute to mourn the continued erosion of the communal experience that TV once was, and hope for the continued existence of the weekly serialized TV show in some form or another.

 

 

Casablanca

“Casablanca,” that quintessentially Hollywood concoction of romance, intrigue, cynicism, idealism, quips and patriotism, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Frankly this comes as a surprise because when I originally saw it during college it ALREADY seemed 75 years old.  I just did the math and when I first saw “Casablanca” in 1973, it was barely 30 years after the premiere – the chronological equivalent of someone watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today.

But if “Ferris Bueller” still seems fresh, contemporary, and in tune with today’s zeitgeist, “Casablanca” in the 1970s clearly belonged to a distant era.  In its values, “Casablanca” comes from a time of seriousness-of-purpose, old-fashioned heroism, and sacrifice.  In the 1970s, we lived in a post-Sixties world of selfishness and me-first-ism.  Not much has changed, which makes the movie as other-worldly and refreshing today as it was 40 years ago.

I’ve rewatched “Casablanca” more than any other movie (and what does it mean when the five movies I’ve watched over and over – “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “My Girl Friday,” and “Casablanca” – were all made within ten years of each other in the Golden Age of Hollywood?)  It particularly appealed to me as a college student coming of age in an un-heroic time.  There’s something about sacrificing yourself for a greater goal that appeals to young men, especially if you can be as tough and steely as Humphrey Bogart.  Indeed, Woody Allen made an entire movie (“Play It Again Sam”) about how he could be more like Bogart.

But just as “The Catcher in the Rye” says something different to you when you’re 55 than it does when you are 15, so too does “Casablanca” resonate differently now that I’m a much older adult.

The first thing I noticed on a recent reviewing was that it’s just about the most watchable and sly propaganda movie ever made.  It premiered on November 26, 1942, less than a year after American entry into World War II.  Of course we know now how the war turned out but in the dark days of 1942, it was not so obvious.  Hitler was at the peak of his powers, France was still occupied by the Germans, and there was no guarantee that the Allies would be able to liberate Europe. Told through the prism of a love triangle, “Casablanca” rallies America to the cause of anti-Fascism, offers hope that decency will prevail over evil, and even excuses the isolationism that initially kept America out of the war.

Here’s the basic plot:  It’s December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, and we’re in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which is choking with refugees fleeing the Nazis.  America is still neutral and so is our protagonist, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), who runs a popular nightclub called “Rick’s Cafe Americain.”  Once an idealist, fighting with the anti-Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain, Rick is now an embittered shell of his former self, telling anyone who inquires “I stick my neck out for no man.” He is clearly a stand-in for the United States, which had idealistically embraced World War I as the “war to end all wars,” only to see Europe become even more dysfunctional than before.  Like Rick, the disillusioned America had become inward-looking and isolationist.

We soon learn the cause of his bitterness.  In the early days of the war he’d been in love with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who’d left him the day the day the Germans marched into Paris to occupy the city.  It turns out she’s secretly married to a famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whom she thought was dead but who turned up alive just before she went to meet Rick at the Paris train station (although Rick doesn’t know any of this).

Rick and Ilsa

Rick and Ilsa during happier times in Paris

As refugees on the run from the Nazis, the Lazlos turn up at Rick’s café, asking for help so Victor can continue the fight for freedom, and he initially refuses because he thinks Ilsa had played him for a patsy in Paris.  But Rick regains his idealism and willingness to help when 1) Ilsa confesses that she still loves him, and 2) Victor offers to help Rick and Ilsa escape because he loves her enough to let her get free, even if it’s with another man.

In the end all the cynicism falls away when Rick realizes there are still others with pure hearts and that he hadn’t been duped by love after all.  And of course the Nazis are brutes too, so there’s that.  In the climactic scene, he sends the Lazlos on the plane to Lisbon and he and his friend Captain Renault (Claude Rains) escape to a Free French garrison somewhere in the desert.  Just like the United States itself, Rick has shrugged off his temporary neutrality and regained his purpose in the world.

The above summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the convoluted plot or to the moment in history that “Casablanca” represents.  In 1942, half of France was directly occupied by the Germans, while the other half and its North African territories were governed by the unoccupied puppet government led by Marshall Petain in Vichy France.  In other words, although the Germans are pulling the strings in the background, the city of Casablanca is still nominally under French control, which supposedly explains why Victor Lazlo, one of the Gestapo’s most wanted targets, somehow manages to walk around unmolested.

There’s also a convoluted subplot about two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle himself that are sort of like a “get out of jail free” card for whomever is carrying them (of course it’s ridiculous to think to think that letters signed by Charles de Gaulle, the enemy of the Vichy government, would entitle the bearers to anything but a trip to a concentration camp.) This is a great bit of Hollywood hokum and the pivot around which the whole movie turns – who will get to use them and go free?  The more you watch the movie the more you groan at this creaking plot device.

One thing you never groan at, though, is the snappy dialogue. When the American Film Institute produced a list of the 100 greatest lines in movie history, Casablanca let the list with seven, including many that have entered the lexicon of everyday life.  Watching the movie for the first time is like reading the bible or Shakespeare: “Oh that’s where that saying comes from!” Some of the best-known quotes include:

  • “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  • “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Here they are in context in 38 seconds:

But it’s not just one-liners that make the writing a delight.  Except for the very serious Nazis and the even-more-serious Lazlo, all the characters are witty or mordant.  They’re living on the edge, which generates a live-for-today mentality.  Rick’s wit is bitter – when asked for his nationality, he says “I’m a drunkard.”  Captain Renault, the chief of police, is a deeply amoral hedonist, caring only about surviving and exploiting pretty refugees. When the Lazlos come looking for Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the original owner of the two letters of transit, they discover he died in jail, which prompts Captain Renault to quip, “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

That the script ever came off at all is a miracle in its own right.   Julius and Philip Epstein (the uncles of Red Sox and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein!!!!) started writing the movie in early 1942, only to drop the project to work for Propaganda Czar Frank Capra.  Howard Koch, another writer, was brought on to finish it, unsuccessfully, so the Epsteins returned to write the final scenes even as the movie was being filmed.  In other words, when production started, no one knew the ending. Even by Hollywood’s factory-town approach to movie-making this was slapdash.  But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon to keep up with current events.  As it was, even though the movie was set to open in spring 1943, it actually premiered in November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Roosevelt and Churchill.

As great as the writing is, the movie’s great emotional climaxes are musical.  The scene in which Lazlo leads the patrons and employees in singing “The Marseilles” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history.  Whenever I feel the need for a little pick-me-up, I play this clip:

The other famous musical scene is when Ilsa comes into Rick Café for the first time, sees the piano player Sam and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” the song he played for her and Rick in Paris.    (It’s in this scene where the line “Play it Sam” gets mangled in the public’s imagination as “Play it again, Sam,” which is the name of the Woody Allen movie.)  The scene is pure 40’s romanticism at its best.  By the way, you can make an interesting comparison to the passivity that the Ingrid Bergman character displays in both scenes: in one she’s in awe of her heroic husband, but in the other she’s musing about her lost love.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Casablanca” went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, “surprising” because even then it was considered high-end schlock.  (I mean, those letters of transit?  Really??!!)  And it more or less faded away as cinema moved first into Technicolor, then into the feel-good Fifties, and finally the counterculture Sixties.  In the Sixties World War II seemed very far away and no longer talked about it, even though many of our fathers had actually served in the war.

The resurgence of “Casablanca” was closely tied to a reappreciation of Bogart himself.  After “Casablanca” Bogart became a major movie star, winning the Oscar for “The African Queen” and marrying the very young and very sultry Lauren Bacall.  But all that smoking and drinking did him in and he died of lung cancer in 1957, a relic of old Hollywood.

But he was rediscovered by French intellectuals in the late 50s and in “Breathless,” one of the most influential New Wave films of the era, the protagonist, wanting to be cool, sees a Bogart still and tries to imitate him.

Once French intellectuals adopted Bogart, college students followed suit, with the first beachhead at Harvard.  Legend has it that when the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge played “Casablanca” during exam week, the Harvard students would stand and sing during “The Marseilles” scene, a proto-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience.

Understanding Bogart is key to understanding the appeal of “Casablanca.”   I ended up doing my senior thesis on Bogart, when I graduated from college in the mid-seventies and I still thank my adviser Eleanor Ilgen for letting me focus on a non-traditional topic.  I did make one fundamental error, though.  My topic was Humphrey Bogart as a cultural icon in the 1940s, but what I should have done is studied him as a cultural figure in the 1970s.  The more interesting question would have been what was it about him that appealed to us in the Seventies?

My girlfriend at the time assured me that she thought Bogart was sexy, but I always found that hard to believe.  He didn’t achieve real stardom until he was in his Forties and wasn’t conventionally handsome.  He had that lisp, was overly sarcastic and looked like he’d led a pretty tough life. But he did have that sense of “cool” that attracted the French.  Cool is the ability to do socially-approved activities effortlessly and with diffidence and Bogart was full of diffidence.

Bogart exuded a new form of masculinity too.  Before the existential neuroticism of James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was the world-weary, disillusioned Bogart.  Primarily a creation of urban America, Bogart was full of repressed violence and rage at a society that had seemingly lost its honor.  In “Casablanca” he’s more than happy to shoot anyone who will stand in his way, even as he doesn’t particularly care if he gets shot himself.  When Ilsa pulls a gun and tries to force Rick to give up the letters of transit (there they are again!) he says, “Go ahead and shoot.  You’ll be doing me a favor.”

In the end, Rick/Bogart does the heroic thing, sacrificing his happiness so Lazlo’s underground activities can continue.  Poor Victor Lazlo.  All he did was lead the Resistance to the most serious threat to liberal democracy the world has ever seen and he’s portrayed as a bit of a stiff – no where near as interesting as the more flawed, struggling Rick.

If you’ve never seen “Casablanca,” by all means do so. And if you haven’t see it in the last ten years, go watch it again.  It’s a classic for a reason.  It’s not my favorite movie from that era and I no longer consider Bogart a role model, but there’s still something seductive about the imagined world that it conjures: exotic but accessible; heroic but witty; sexy but glamorous.  We should all live in Hollywood movies.

Some random thoughts:

Not a good movie for feminism.  Ilsa Lund is passivity itself and has no agency of her own during the whole movie.  At one point she even tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for all of them.  On the other hand, she is amazingly beautiful.

I’d like to see a movie made of the Victor Lazlo story — in other words, the same story from his perspective, not Rick’s.  I’m sure he’d be a lot more sympathetic and Rick would seem like a jerk.

— The cast included only three Americans — Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played Sam the piano player, and Joy Page, who played a Bulgarian refugee.  All the rest were Europeans who were themselves on the run from the Nazis, which lent an air of authenticity to the movie.  The story goes that during the singing of the “Marseilles” these exiles were so moved that there were barely acting when you see them crying.

In my thesis I made what I still think is a pretty good point, which is that it was inevitable that Rick would leave Ilsa at the airport because the theme of men alone dominates in American literature.  Rick’s closest relationships are with Sam, the black piano player, and the scoundrel Captain Renault.  There are few male protagonists in American fiction who end up happily-ever-after with a woman and when Rick and Renault take off for the desert to join the Free French it’s just like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to avoid being “sivilized” by his Aunt Polly.  The ability to do that kind of analysis is what you get for your liberal arts education.

No one expected “Casablanca” to become one of the most beloved films of all time but this was not a movie that went unregarded in its own time.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the New York Times’ review in 1942: “Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, “Casablanca,” which came to the Hollywood yesterday. They are telling it in the high tradition of their hard-boiled romantic-adventure style. And to make it all the more tempting they have given it a top-notch thriller cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt and even Claude Rains, and have capped it magnificently with Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and a Negro “find” named Dooley Wilson.”

Ever had a Champagne Cocktail?  Me neither, but they are guzzling them at Rick’s.  Here’s the recipe: “Place a sugar cube* in a chilled champagne flute, lash it with 2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Angostura or Peychaud’s), fill the glass with brut champagne or other, cheaper, bubbly (peasant!), and squeeze a lemon twist on top.”

— Words to live by:  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

TV Watching Couple

There used to be a saying that “The family that prays together stays together.” In other words, regular church attendance was thought to be good for stable, happy families.  When religion went out of fashion, social scientists then said families should eat dinner together.

But I’ve got a different idea – families should gather around a TV and watch a favorite show.  There’s nothing as disheartening as a house where the kids are hunched over their laptops in their bedrooms while dad is following football in the living room and mom is watching home improvement shows in the kitchen.  That’s a family where everyone is in his or her own world.

I’m not advocating a return to the Fifties, when each home had a single television and the whole family had to watch the same homogenized programs.  But with the amazing catalog of content available today it doesn’t seem too much to ask that families find at least one TV show per night to experience together.

Admittedly this is easier when you have fewer kids or children that are near in age.  My wife and I only had one child, and until he was six or seven he never sat in front of a working television without one or both of us by his side.  This smells of over-parenting in retrospect, but TV was always something we affirmatively did together – just one of several activities we shared.  It was not a babysitter or a way to pass time.  But if you have a handful of kids instead of just one, it’s not as easy as it was for us.

Watching TV with your kids doesn’t need to be a sacrifice once we’d separated the wheat from the chaff.   In fact, children’s TV can be delightful.  We discovered that “SpongeBob Square Pants” was hilarious, “Arthur” sweet, and “Hey Arnold” touching.  Soon enough we were watching “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and then “The Office.”  On the very last week he left home for good and moved into his own apartment, we binge-watched and finished the final season of “Justified.”

There are many benefits to a family TV hour: you can make sure your kids are watching age-appropriate TV; the kids come to understand that they are important enough to spend time with; everyone in the family learns to compromise; the family develops inside jokes and special catch-phrases; and the content stimulates unforced discussions that you might already want to initiate (or sometimes NOT want to initiate – I remember all too well the day my son asked me what Viagra was, thanks to a commercial during a baseball game.)

Once the kids are out of the house, shared television-watching can also be good couples’ therapy too.  I’m not making this up either – there was an actual academic study published in the mighty Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that said watching television together can strengthen the closeness of a romantic couple, particularly if the couple do not have a lot of common friends.  In effect, television characters become their shared friends.

It is a truism of marriage counselors that married couples should find shared interests to prevent them from drifting apart as they grow older.  I remember reading one article that praised a canny wife for taking up golf so she could play with her husband.  Today it would be offensive to suggest that a wife should take up a husband’s hobby – why doesn’t he get into gardening to make her happy for cripes sake?

Watching television together is not a marital panacea but I know from experience that it’s an easy way to generate a shared experience.   Five years ago my wife and I made a pact that we would watch at least one show per night after dinner.  We’ve recently started to follow “Game of Thrones” from the beginning (better late than never!) and it’s been an intense bonding experience as we’ve tried to figure out the characters, the history and the alliances.  Before that it was “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Americans.”

Please note: this video-based couples therapy doesn’t work if all you’re doing is sitting on the couch and passively turning on the TV to see what’s plying.  This needs to be “appointment TV” – a show you affirmatively want to watch and interact with.  It doesn’t have to be high-quality TV, though.  Even just kibitzing and second-guessing the answers in “Family Feud” would work if it’s an interest that a couple shares.  Because in the end, it’s not really the TV show that matters; it’s the commitment to spend time together on an experience that interests everyone in the family or marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern-Family

Feeling a little down about the state of the world?  Wouldn’t it be great to turn on the TV and spend an hour just laughing?  Well, forget that.  TV has never offered as many comedy options as it does today and yet produced so few actual laughs.

We are constantly congratulating ourselves for living through the Golden Age of Television, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that we are in a Golden Age of TV Comedy.  There’s no contemporary equivalent of “I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Seinfeld.”  The closest we have today to those classics is “Modern Family,” which is heading into its eighth season and feels more than a little long-in-the-tooth.

The problem isn’t confined to network TV.  Basic and premium cable are awash in comedies, as are streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.  Almost every time I turn on Netflix I’m notified of a new sitcom that seems mildly interesting but usually isn’t.  Part of the problem is that many of the new comedies seem to be targeted at niche audiences – black single women, the transgendered, lesbians with mastectomies, older divorcees, teens, Hispanic single moms, African American college students, etc.  It’s hard to find a show with universal appeal.

To be fair, there are a handful of shows that are actually fresh and funny: “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “black-ish” are of-the-moment and hilarious, but none are particularly highly rated, and they ask the audience to think too much ever to penetrate the consciousness of Middle America.

An even bigger challenge in comedy is that the most highly respected sitcoms are barely comedies as all.  I’ve written about this before, noting that pain, humiliation, and self-involvement are now considered mainstream sources of humor.   Shows about drunken, self-abasing cartoon horses (“Bo Jack Horseman”) or pathetic education administrators who burn down their boss’s house (“Vice Principals”) might tell us something are human nature when it’s pushed to the extreme, but it’s definitely not going to give us a respite from our daily cares.  (See the “BoJack “trailer below for an example of a very good but very dark “comedy.”)

And it’s not just sitcoms that have ceased to be funny.  Late night TV was once the province of laid-back amusement – a place to mellow out with a few laughs before fading away for the day.  No more.  Now it’s the spearhead for the Trump resistance.  Stephen Colbert used to be a sharp and acerbic political critic, but now he’s so bitter about the Trump presidency that he is no longer funny except to Trump haters.  (I do have to admit, though, that “Saturday Night Live” was the exception to the rule this year, producing hilarious and much-talked about spoofs of the President and, most memorably, Sean Spicer.)

Meanwhile poor Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately tried to avoid political controversy, isn’t funny anymore precisely because he seems out of touch.  It’s a crazy conundrum – you’re not funny if you talk about politics too much, but also not funny if you pull your political punches.  No one seems able to find the happy medium – maybe because the country is too split.

One place from where you should be able to squeeze out a laugh or two is from one of the hundreds of stand-up specials on HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon and yet I find this a generally unsatisfying experience.  There’s a reason that stand-up works best in front of a live audience.  The crowd laughs and you laugh too, even if the joke isn’t that great.  But watching alone in your living room with all the attendant distractions?  It better be riotously funny.  The last stand up special I really enjoyed was Bill Cosby’s 2014 appearance on Netflix (sigh).  I did appreciate the achievement of Dave Chappelle’s two recent specials but they were so risqué that I was embarrassed to be watching them even though I was the only one home at the time.

In the end, I think the problem might actually be that there’s too much comedy content.  How many more comedy shows are there now than in the 1980s, when TV fractured into specialized channels?  Five times more?  Ten times?  But there isn’t five or ten times more comedy talent than there used to be.  Writers who used to be the fourth-funniest person in the writers’ room are now showrunners themselves.  Comedians who would be barely scratching out a living 30 years ago in comedy clubs or improv companies now have major production deals.

Maybe we’d be better off with less comedy and more desperate struggling comedians.  That would be worse for them but better for us.

(By the way, the exception to everything written above is “The Big Bang Theory,” by far the most popular sitcom on TV and a throw-back to 1970s TV with its punchlines, laugh tracks, easy-to-follow plotting and three-camera production values.  The show is not really for me, but audiences seem to like the tried-and-true formula.  It’s shocking to me that no one seems to be able to duplicate it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children Watching TV in the Past (5)

When people look back and romanticize the summers of their youth, they usually rhapsodize about swimming holes, the beach, boardwalks or picnics, but for me, what I most remember about the summer is the many many hours I spent in front of the television set.

It’s a rule of thumb that TV viewing declines in the summer when people start spending more time in outdoor leisure pursuits.  That’s not the way it was in our house.  Freed from the shackles of homework and all those hours of sitting in school, my sister and I plopped ourselves in front of the TV for hours at a time.  It’s a law of physics that all matter will eventually succumb to entropy, but there is nothing quite as entropic as a kid left to his own devices in the summer.

This was back in the day before parents planned every second of their kids’ lives.  And both my parents worked long hours so we didn’t have a lot of supervision.  Eventually at some point during the day, we’d go outside and run around in the back yard, ride our bikes or find some other kids to play whiffle ball with, but first we had to conserve our energy in front of the TV set.

We watched lots of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Wood Woodpecker, Might Mouse), game shows (“The Price is Right,” “To Tell the Truth” and “The Match Game”) and syndicated sitcoms (“I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Danny Thomas Show.”)  In other words, not the most elevated programming.

And when we’d go to visit my grandparents on Nantucket we’d log even more hours in front of the TV. In fact, it was on Nantucket where I saw my first color TV.  Every Friday night we’d go down to my great-grandfather’s house and watch Mitch Miller’s show in color.

I wince now to think of those Nantucket visits, but there we were in a summer paradise and instead of chasing girls, exploring the island or learning how to catch fish, I’d be hanging out in my grandparents’ living room watching the tube.  How well I remember the summer I insisted we return from the beach by 3:00 pm because I wanted to watch “Dark Shadows.”  The chagrin of it all.

When I became a parent myself, my wife and I made sure our son spent his time more productively.  Even though the cartons he wanted to watch seemed vaguely educational or socially redeeming, we still restricted his TV time and signed him up for plenty of summer activities.

Of course TV today is actually the least menacing screen.  Video games are violent, computers provide easy access to porn, and smartphones are addictive.  My wife and I were lucky that smartphones didn’t become pervasive until our son was in high school.  If I were currently the father of a young child I’d probably WANT him to spend more time watching TV, if that is what it took to keep him away from the other screens.

But when all is said and done, I wonder if all this anxiety about screens really matters.  Left to our own devices my sister and I watched a lot of TV during the summer but we still turned out to be productive members of society.  Eventually I grew out of game shows and cartoons and started reading books.  To namedrop a big one, I even read “War and Peace” a few summers ago, so my powers of concentration were not shattered by a childhood of watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.  (On the other hand, who’s to say, maybe if I’d had the right stimulation I might have WRITTEN my own “War and Peace” instead of simply reading it.)

I still watch a lot of TV in the summer, but now it’s baseball, Netflix, and Shark Week.  Unlike my youthful self, though, I would never watch TV during the day, so that must be a sign of maturity.  Maybe when I’m retired I’ll recline on the couch in late afternoons and reacquaint myself with “The Andy Griffith Show.”  That would be a real second childhood.

 

 

Twin Peaks Bad Dale

With the season finales of “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” behind us, the prestige TV season is almost over.  There’s really only “Twin Peaks” to keep us going until next spring, when the Emmy-bait shows return.

This also means we have a short respite from highly stylized violence deployed in the pursuit of art.  Unfortunately, it will be a very short respite, because “Game of Thrones” is right on the horizon, and “The Walking Dead” will be back soon after that.

For decades, television violence has been one of the most hotly debated issues among academics, family groups, lawmakers, and critics, with most of the debate revolving around the impact of violence on children.

The rule of thumb is that conservatives are more worried about sex on TV and that liberals are concerned with violence.  And I have to admit that I am among those who think that a teenager is more likely to be influenced by watching their peers having sex than by people shooting each other.

Having said that, I’ll leave the debate about TV’s influence on kids until another time.  I’m more interested now in the impact of violence on adults, specifically the violence that appears on the most highly honored and respected television shows.

Any list of great shows from the Golden Age of Television would include some of the most violent ones — not just the previously cited “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo” but also “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “The Leftovers,” “Dexter,” “Justified,” “True Detective” and “The Americans.”

A comparison between the original “Twin Peaks” and its sequel illustrates how our tolerance or even craving for violence has grown in the past three decades.  The first “Twin Peaks” was plenty scary and psychologically disturbing through good writing, haunting music, original storytelling, and eerie production values, but there was little in the way of obvious blood and guts.

Even accounting for the fact that the first “Twin Peaks” was shown on broadcast television (ABC) and the new one is on Showtime, the new version is markedly more grisly, with disembodied corpses or gruesome murders in almost every episode.   In one recent episode a dwarf brutally stabbed two women to death with an ice pick, and a drugged-up teenage driver ran over a small child in front of his mother.  These scenes effectively illustrated the depravity of modern life — but boy, they were tough to watch.

Part of the problem with evaluating television violence is that there are qualitative but hard-to-quantify differences between different types of violence.  When I was growing up, the adults used to worry that the face slaps and head bonks of “The Three Stooges” encouraged violence. And there was rarely a Western or crime show that didn’t begin or end without someone being shot dead.  But those violent acts were relatively bloodless and not particularly disturbing.  Even today, there are shows with plenty of gunplay that don’t make you question whether life is worth living.

But one of the features of prestige TV is beautiful and powerful visual direction, with each scene composed like a masterpiece.  When someone on these shows gets killed (or even beaten up), the director’s talent is on full display.  For example, one murder on “Fargo” involved a guy getting stabbed in the neck as he was retrieving a carton of milk from the refrigerator. The resulting image was a stream of bright red blood pooling with the white milk – a beautiful but disturbing contrast between life and death.

On prestige TV, violence is supposed to be disturbing — it’s not to be taken lightly.  If a couple of bad guys are kicking a woman on the ground, each thud makes you feel sick to your stomach, as it should (see following video for proof of that).

Further, the more the show aspires to real art, the more the innocent suffer and the more random life feels.  This is one of the differences between prestige and traditional TV.  Most TV viewers prefer unchallenging shows where emotions are not ripped raw and where evil is punished.  That’s not always the case on the artier shows. Sometimes the good guys end up dead and the bad guys walk free.

Look, I like shows that challenge my assumptions and make me think about the bigger issues as much as the next guy, but the over-reliance on violence as an emotional intensifier seems a bit lazy after a while.

Here’s where shows like “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Friday Night Lights” really differentiated themselves.  Almost all of the drama we experience in our own lives is free of physical violence.  We are subjected to plenty of EMOTIONAL violence, but most of us don’t get shot, stabbed or garroted even once in our lives — never mind with the frequency it happens on TV.

So give us a break, prestige TV artists-of-the-first-rank.  Find a way to get our blood racing without showing someone else’s blood flowing.