22 October 2009

Setting the Record (or the Video Tape) Straight

The only picture I could find with a TV in it.

Dearest children, students, friends, relatives, and anyone else who tolerates this blog:

I am not anti-TV. If I were, I'd be the world's worst hypocrite. I feel that I've left some of you with the impression that I'm against practically all TV programming. Well, I am against a lot of it. Whole categories of television programming these days leave me sort of cold and utterly unimpressed.

But there are some pretty decent and well-written things on the tube these days, as well. It's not up to you to follow my TV schedule nor is it up to me to influence yours. But, the First Amendment still being in place (for the moment,) allow me to talk about what I like and don't like on the tube.

REALITY TV: So called. It began with sticking a bunch of people on an island and exposing them to various "hardships" and "dangers." If there were really any danger, they'd be catching a ride out of there with the directors and the camera crew. And where's the reality in a group of
"stranded" folks just happening to be between the ages of 20 and 34 and generally fairly attractive. Why aren't us normal looking folks even represented on these shows? A couple of years ago I walked into the room and some family members were watching a lot of professional models (some of them male!) who were all sharing the same apartment! Oh, sure! THAT's gonna happen. And they teased each other and cried and ganged up on each other and encouraged each other, and occasionally tossed someone out on the street just because the rest of them didn't like that person! What's REAL about that? If he or she has a lease and the landlord doesn't want him/her out, guess what? They're stayin'!

Sheryl has been a fan for a couple of years of Dancing With the Stars. She started out just trying to support Marie, then laid off a season, but Donnie's on this year, so our TV is tuned to it again. She votes twice, once with her phone, once with mine. OK, I guess there's some reality there. Ozzie Osbourne's little girl really seems to have to work hard to learn the dances and the former Speaker of the House broke his foot - really! But does this qualify as "reality." I mean, if they weren't contacted a year in advance and if their agents hadn't accepted the 7 figure contract for them, not one of these stars would show up to work their guts out under the tutelage of a professional dancer who thinks they're all idiots. I mean, how real is that?

One last jab at reality TV. PUT SOME CLOTHES ON! I have to leave the room whenever the family plebiscite chooses to watch something in which people are dancing or in which unbathed people are living on a beach. I mean, they remembered to bring all the sound equipment and the lights, but nobody thought they'd need some clothes? I'm 58, but I'm not dead! I openly gasped the other night when a woman did some kind of Argentine dance with her partner. My wife, being a woman and therefore quick to detract from all other women, said, "She's 48." That only made me gasp some more. She was so perfect from head to toe (all of which was clearly visible) that it sort of hurt to look at her. I mean, beauty like that never even finds its way into a museum. Time to leave the room.

COMEDY: There is not a single sit-com currently under production which doesn't embarrass me with its sheer stupidity. Nearly all gags these days are based on sex, be it of the hetero- variety or the homo- variety. They bore me. They embarrass me. I've sort of felt this way all my life. We watched the sit-coms when we were kids, because our parents watched them. But even then they embarrassed me quite a lot. Some were just trying too hard. Some were just absurd without achieving "comedy of the absurd." Lucy never appealed to me. At all.

Dick Van Dyke was a good show.

The Beverly Hillbillies was periodically good, but the best character, the bank president's secretary, wasn't on nearly often enough.

Since the Vietnam Era, I can think of only two comedy series which were truly superior: MASH and Barney Miller. MASH was really just an incredibly long protest against the Viet Nam war, set in Korea between 1950 and 1953. The writers gave the soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses the same attitudes that Hollywood liberals had between about 1967 and 1975. They thought like them, talked like them, and even cut (or didn't cut) their hair like them. And yet I generally liked it. The writing was usually clever and the acting was always superior with one or two exceptions. Mike Farrell was great, usually, but he couldn't cry convincingly on cue. But neither could I, so I decided to cut him a little slack.

Barney Miller was my all-time favorite sit-com. Every character was underplayed to just the right degree. A few nights ago I saw the guy who played the goofy kid on the squad. He was in an episode of Criminal Minds, playing a bald, grey-bearded grandfather who learns, along with his wife, that their murdered daughter had a little boy and that they will get to raise him. The Japanese guy on Barney Miller was a comedic genius. Dead-pan is an expression that must have been invented just to describe him. I'll never forget a scene in which some dumb guy looks at his Asian features and begins to speak to him in loud, slow syllables of pidgin English. After the idiot walked out, the officer was standing there being stared at by all his colleagues. He opened his hands wide and said, "I'm from Omaha." That line had me on the floor.

Another line in a pretty good series that about killed me was when the owner of WKRP in Cincinnati throws a bunch of domestic turkeys to their doom from an airplane as a publicity stunt. "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"

Stand-up comedy is practically dead. Jay Leno, David Letterman, and the Irish and Scottish guys are all reasonably good. But if you go to the dedicated "comedy" channel, all the stand-ups are foul-mouthed and mortifyingly unclever.

The Brits still do pretty good comedy shows, but you have to miss a lot of good American drama to see very much of that. Yes, we record a lot of stuff, but there simply isn't time in life to see everything. Which leads us to...

DRAMA: When I was a kid (also known as the Pleistocene Epoch) there were two types of drama on TV. Everything was either cops & robbers or a western. Variety shows once existed, but they've been gone so long that it would take another entire post just to explain what they were.) Peter Gunn was probably the first great TV detective show, although some others which had started on radio shifted with some success to the tube. Peter Gunn would always be my favorite, at least until Mannix, because Henry Mancini wrote the Gunn soundtrack and the theme, and no screen writer of music has ever bested him. It pleased me to read on the back of the Peter Gunn LP that a "new young piano player" named Johnny Williams was involved in the recording. I have suspicions but cannot prove that he's the much respected best screen music composer of today.

Mannix and Orwell and a few other police or lawyer or detective-type series through the sixties pleased me. But the sixties were dominated by MORE westerns and by SPY shows. My favorite was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughan, who had just been shot to doll rags in The Magnificent Seven a year or so before, played Napoleon Solo, an agent who worked for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. David McCallum, who today cuts up dead bodies while giving fascinating lectures on NCIS, played his very hip, totally cool partner, Ilya Kuryakin. Timing was everything here. To have a Russian be a major character on a US TV show was unheard of. But to have him be a GOOD guy was astounding! After all, the Cold War was very much under way and anything Russian had an aura of suspicion around it. I recall my father coming home from the radio station one afternoon, chuckling, and telling my mother, "Did you hear what Harry Truman said today? He said, 'You can't trust a Russian.' He didn't say 'a Communist.' He said 'a Russian!' My father was clearly delighted that "Give 'em Hell Harry" was still doing so.

McCallum's character surprised lots of adults in America. Robert Vaughan was clearly the more standard handsome guy on the show, but David McCallum seemed to rev up a lot of female teenage hormones and adults seemed both puzzled and worried about it. Several weeks ago I was watching an episode of NCIS. One of the young women in the show asked their older boss, LeRoy Jethro Gibbs, "What did Ducky (Dr. Mallard) look like when he was young?" Gibbs thought for a brief moment and smiled. "He looked like Ilya Kurakin." This, of course, meant nothing to the young woman, but it made me laugh out loud.

NCIS, CSI (all versions), Criminal Minds, Cold Case, and Without A Trace still interest me, but I usually have time to watch only a couple of them per week. Numbers is good, too, but I hate to give CBS credit for anything because of their long-standing war on the Second Amendment. Then again, they may have made Gunsmoke, a truly great western series. Rats!

Theme music for dramas is usually better than that for comedies, although not always. Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The High Chapparal, The Virginian, and The Rifleman all had beautiful theme music. There was once such a thing as a half-hour drama. The Rebel and Have Gun, Will Travel were two examples of such, both of them westerns. And both had superior theme music.

There is more of what dramatists call "comic relief" in today's dramas. I saw some of that in the spy show days, especially in The Avengers, a British import which depended heavily on Patrick MacNee's acting ability and Diana Rigg's tawny shape and perfect English face. Being British, it was also clever. I own the 1967 season, but haven't seen the other seasons for sale. Some dramas, over the years, have become more comic relief than drama. This hasn't bothered me unless the comic relief was badly done or seemed out of place. One show that did it a lot and did it well was Magnum, PI. Thomas Sullivan Magnum was equal to everything as long as he had his 1911 pistol, Robin Masters' Ferrari, and his moustache. And to think that Selleck got his start playing a dead body! Maybe that was appropriate, though, since he sold cigarettes as the Marlboro Man for a while.

Perhaps my all-time favorite scene from the Magnum series was the one in which stuffy old Higgins had built a model of the Bridge over the River Kwai from toothpicks. He and Magnum had been torturing each other more than usual. Magnum rigged up some tiny explosives, just like in the movie, but it didn't really happen in history, and, using a tiny little plunger, befitting the size of its target, blew the toothpicks all around the room. I knew it was cruel, but I couldn't stop laughing.

Another show that was probably more comedy than drama was Simon & Simon. (Great guitar work in the theme!) Delta Burke's husband, Gerald McRainey (I think) played Rick, older brother to AJ. I recall an episode in which AJ was locked in a tiny sound-proof room and assaulted with incredibly loud sound which could have destroyed his hearing with very long exposure. He pulled out a Colt Python (stainless) and blew out the speakers. At least, that's the way I remember it.

Today, I watch a few shows on the History Channel, a series called Eureka on the Sci Fi channel, and things like NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc.

There is one other show which Sheryl and I love to watch together. This may amaze you (providing that you care.) We like Ugly Betty. I was not predisposed to like it the first time we turned it on, but it turned out to be just the sort of thing I'd thought for a long time that the doctor had ordered for network TV. It is about a family of honest, kind, thoughtful people and their interactions with all the self-serving, devious, cruel blackguards in the world of fashion. For the first time in forever, we have a heroine to whom we can legitimately point and say to our daughters (not to mention our sons) "There! See? She could have been cruel like the other people, but she blew them away with kindness and thoughtfulness, instead." Somehow she has gradually learned to stand up for herself, but she's never lost her essential decency.

Ugly Betty accomplishes something that I haven't seen done successfully since the eighties when Crime Story (set in the sixties) made you have feelings for ALL the characters, even the brutal mafiosi! The character played by Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty is about as cold, calculating, and mean-spirited as any I've ever seen. Certainly she is the coldest female character I've ever seen outside a vampire movie. And yet, when her insane sister burns up her apartment or her daughter kills a guy in self-defense, you actually find yourself rooting for her. That's the mark of good writing, not to mention pretty fine acting.

So, no. I'm not a hater of TV. But I'm pretty darned critical of what's out there. We just don't need some of the trash that's being made. We absolutely do not need shows called Cougars or Desperate Housewives. They seem to be trying to raise adultery to an art form. No, I haven't watched them. Ever! The previews tell me everything I need to know in order to make an informed decision. Fortunately, my partner agrees with me about most such moral choices. And what we watch on the tube IS a moral choice.


clark myers said...

"It pleased me to read on the back of the Peter Gunn LP that a "new young piano player" named Johnny Williams was involved in the recording. I have suspicions but cannot prove that he's the much respected best screen music composer of today."

The much respected screen music composer of today gets the credit - "The pianist who played the well known piano portion of the "Peter Gunn Theme" was future film composer John Williams."
- and I suppose the royalties - so he's likely the one.

Heidi said...

I enjoyed this pot Uncle Jim. I agree with just about all of it. We don't even get TV at our house. We feel that it is not worth the money we would spend on it. And we would spend too much time watching TV when we could be doing better things as a family. I am a huge fan of the Dick Van Dyke show though. I get Netflix and am going to see if they have any of the episodes available to rent. And I LOVE MASH. I hated it when I was a kid. I remember sneaking just inside my parents room when I was very little(when I was supposed to be in bed). My parents would be sitting in bed, watching MASH and laughing like crazy. I would look at the TV and seen nothing but adults dressed in white, standing around a table and talking about nothing. And everything else was the ugliest color of green I had ever seen. I love it so much now though :).

Thanks for sharing,

Love you,

Jocie said...

I seem to recall you being a fan of a little show called "Buffy". It also had a great opening theme. Not to mention the "Grrr, arrg" at the end! Always loved that.
Anyway, Jane and I were thinking of doing a Buffy marathon on or around Halloween. Care to join us?

Joseph and Mary + Seven said...

I have to agree with most of this post. TV for the most part has gone south! We don't have TV because even the commercials are innappropriate for the kids (and mom and dad.) I can't believe what is acceptable nowadays! What ever happened to shows like The Cosby Show. I too like Ugly Betty! I guess I can relate! TV is just one more thing that started out good and has been taken over by the master of all evil. We have to be very careful what we decide to watch. Thanks for getting me thinking!

Sister Snoopy said...

Buffy? You liked Buffy? *chuckle* I had a platonic "thing" for Spikey for a while.....

I remember when Magnum blew that bridge up. I laughed too. The creator of Magnum also created NCIS as well as JAG and some other really good shows--in my opinion, of course!

In our home, we watch the original CSI, Flash Forward (although last week's was a little too worldly for me (ewwww), Cold Case, Smallville (although not sure how much longer there), and Ghost Whisperer. We've also started watching Three Rivers and The Mentalist.

After years of just CSI, Smallville, and Ghost Whisperer... Wow.

My Favorite Books & Authors

  • Dale Brown
  • Mark Twain
  • Charles Dickens
  • Speeches both Historical and Hysterical
  • Damon Runyon
  • Jan Karon Mitford Novels
  • Clive Cussler
  • Tom Clancy Novels
  • Harry Potter
  • The Works of Ernest Thompson Seton