Category Archives: Television

The unreality of reality tv

Back in the early 00’s I think it was we had the heyday of the reality TV show.  The premise was simple enough.  Throw out the script, bring in non-actors and put them in a situation and film what they do.  Not an original concept but fresh enough for American and then worldwide audiences to be captivated.

Here at last, or so went the conventional thinking, was unfiltered real drama.  No proscribed happy endings, no cliché lines, no predictable results.  Things would happen as they would and be delivered unapologetically to an audience that could either take it or leave it, and take it they did.

Network execs were overjoyed.  Not only were the shows a huge hit but they didn’t have to pay writers, actors, or directors to film this stuff.  A shoestring budget with a golden return.

The first show of the trend centered around filming people out in the wild but soon there were imitators peeking into the lives of people in a house or traveling around the world or trying to find true love.

This then morphed into reality competitions trying to find singers or actors or models and filming the real lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances (dangerous jobs, unconventional lifestyles, extremely rich). This programming vein seemed to be endless.

However some disturbing incidents took place.  Some episodes seemed to be filming the interpersonal conflicts that arose here and there and while that might happen normally some viewers started noting how the cameras always seemed to be in the right spot at the right time to capture those moments.

What’s more sometimes some of the “stars” of the shows left for various reasons and would decry the show online as “made up” or “staged”

The talent competitions seemed to be running on empty as well.  Some clearly untalented people were winning competitions and really not living up to their potential.

This programming trend is running towards the end of its course.  A few die-hard shows still continue on more than a decade later but less and less new shows are coming in.  The writer, the producer, and the director (specially the writer) are coming to be appreciated again and more conventional shows are claiming the top rating slots.

I’ve pretty much switched off my set in the last couple of years and have missed most of this.  I felt for a long time that the networks have pretty much tried to engage the lowest common denominator and have created low brow entertainment for the masses.

These reality shows are the ultimate expression of that.  They really don’t provide any insight or challenge a thinking person at all.  They are merely amusements for the brain to kill off an hour or two.

I hope that as these shows die off that we can reverse the trend and that with the last decade or so that new writers will be able to create and produce content that will once again turn television into a medium that will challenge as well as entertain.

Discussions that we should have but we’re not having

I rarely watch TV anymore.  I don’t find all that much that excites my intellect or that is thought provoking or that I can respect.  I find the opposite to be true.  I feel that most television programming is an insult to the viewing public.

I find most programming to be a waste of time.  Most programs pander to the lowest common denominator, sex and violence.  They rehash or rework tired old ideas and concepts and expect the viewing public to not notice that the plot lines are painfully and ridiculously predictable.  But what I find most disturbing about television is how it serves as an electronic anesthetic and distraction for the public when real issues come up that need to be discussed.

The viewing public would much prefer to pay attention to the most vapid and banal television shows rather than to become informed and or take action on matters which direct or indirectly affect them.  Matters which they very much need to voice their opinions, yet they don’t.

So it’s worth noting when a program comes on that at the very least brings some of these topics up and captures the public imagination in an entertaining yet informative format.  The program that I am thinking about is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Episode dealing with Net Neutrality

For those that don’t know, John Oliver is a British comedian that emigrated to the states and began writing material for comedy shows like The Daily Show with John Stewart. After a successful run at the Daily Show he decided to try his hand at his own news oriented comedy show on HBO.

The results have been significant.  Not only is the show extremely popular but several of the topics that he has covered have been given closer scrutiny by mainline news organizations and his efforts have gone viral on social media and have arguably helped promote some changes in some contemporary topics.

Oliver has covered topics such as the above mentioned Net Neutrality, FIFA, the wealth gap in America, police militarization, and the prevalence of Sugar in the American diet.

Now, I don’t happen to agree with everything he does.  I don’t agree with all his view points, as a comedian he tends to frame the debates in humorous ways, and he doesn’t cover all the topics that I wish he would but I have to give him high marks and praise for bringing these topics to light and giving them the attention that they are due.

I think that in an age where too often television executives don’t want to bother with sophisticated or thought-provoking television shows and would rather just distract the public, that we need to give praise and promote shows that at least encourage the public to think and start important conversations about topics that affect us all.

Lessons from the twilight

Back in the 80s nerd culture was just beginning to coalesce.  I had no clue what a nerd was or that I was one.  I just did what I did and assumed it was natural.  Part of that nerd behavior was watching old 50’s and 60’s sci-fi TV shows obsessively.  I could and maybe I will at some time in the future write obsessively about other shows but I have to give a special nod to one TV show in particular, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

Serling was an odd character.  Although physically small (he was only 5 foot 4 inches tall), he aggressively pursued athletics and later went into the paratroopers during World War 2.  Dismissed as lazy in his studies by his teachers he came out of the war and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Literature at Antioch College.  Repeatedly turned down by his future wife for being a playboy, he continued to court her until she agreed to marry him.  Basically a guy that went out and did those things that people said he couldn’t do.

He brought this same type of restless energy into his radio career and then into the new medium of television.  He pushed and pushed until he got the pilot show approved for the Twilight Zone.

Twilight Zone itself was a show that dealt mainly with modern polemics and age-old questions more than most shows of the era and indeed more than most shows nowadays.  The idea that the show dealt with silly or spurious topics is false.  Racism, classism, the “rat race”, death, redemption.  All of these would be recurring themes in the show.  Serling would usually begin the show with a short introduction to the topic and would also add some closing thoughts at the end of the show.  The viewer would be drawn in and encouraged to think about the topic rather than to sit back and be amused by some mindless entertainment.



Every once in a while I will stumble across one of these episodes and sometimes I can draw some parallels to what’s going on in my life at the moment and yet again I think to myself what a brilliant man Serling was.

Three episodes resonate with me at the moment and I have to admit they have resonated with me in the past as well.


Walking Distance

A busy executive from New York City stops by a gas station in the middle of nowhere.  While he has the oil changed in his car he notices that the town that he grew up in is nearby and decides to visit it.  He finds that he has somehow gone back in time and sees himself as a child.  He desperately wants to stay in the past but his father confronts him and tells him that he can’t and that maybe life wasn’t so bad after all.


Nervous man in a four dollar room

Jacky, a failed gangster, sits in a cheap hotel room trying to make a decision as to whether to murder an innocent storekeeper, as ordered by his gang boss, or quit his life of crime and reform.

As he thinks, the reflection in the room mirror talks to him.  The reflection reminds him of all his past failures and stresses Jacky’s inherent character flaws and weaknesses.

As the conversation progresses Jacky becomes increasingly anxious and frustrated.  The reflection finally challenges Jacky and tells him that he wants to take over.  The two struggle for control.

The gang boss arrives in the morning to see why Jacky hasn’t carried out the murder.  Jacky beats up the boss and throws him out telling him that he’s through with crime and also noting that his new name is now John.


The Changing of the guard

An elderly professor learns that he will soon be forced to retire.  Looking back on his career he believes that his time has been wasted and that he has not made any impact.  He considers committing suicide.  As he does, the phantoms of some of his past students emerge.  They relate what they did in life and how he was the inspiration for their lives.  In the end the professor realizes that he did make a difference in people’s lives and decides to accept his retirement.



These are some of my favorite episodes.  I find myself turning back to these over and over again when life gets tough, when things aren’t going my way, or when I find myself at a loss as to what direction to take.  The past should stay in the past, a life can be redeemed, and we are the sum of our experiences, all of them.

Lessons aren’t confined to books.  Wisdom may be found in the oddest of places and we should never discount knowledge no matter where it comes.  Even if that places happens to be in The Twilight Zone.

Your Halloween viewing guide

I sometimes listen to a program on NPR called The Dinner party Download. They sometimes give suggestions for food, music, and other details for dinner parties as well as cover all sorts of topics.

In that spirit I thought I would put together a list of Halloween movies appropriate for the season in case you find yourself alone or with friends one of these October nights and have a yearning for something seasonal.  I have mixed in some comedies as well as horror movies.  Halloween is meant to be fun after all.  Probably should watch these at night with the lights out for maximum effect


 The Walking dead – Incredibly this is in its fifth season.  I mean, I thought the whole zombie premise was barely plausible enough for one 90-minute movie but these folks have managed to squeeze out years of TV revolving around a small band of survivors stuck in a zombie world.  This features the latest in gory special effects.  The plot deals more with character interactions than with the zombie apocalypse.  The stories are solid enough to keep you hooked and the writers aren’t scared of killing off fan favorite characters just to keep things fresh.

Kolchak: The Nightstalker – One of those forgotten gems of 70s television.  Revolves around a reporter who gets drawn into all sorts of strange and spooky situations.  Pretty basic special effects but the writing and acting is solid.  The direct ancestor of the X-files.  You can probably find it online.  More campy than scary.

Salem’s lot – One of the first adaptations of a Stephen King novel.  Follows a writer that returns to his home town as a mysterious plague begins turning the citizens into vampires.  If you expect sparkly vampires then this isn’t for you.  These vampires tend more towards the gruesome.

Ed Wood – Homage to the worst director ever.  Johnny Depp’s portrayal of this pioneer of bad horror movies is hilarious and probably dead on.

The Ninth gate – Speaking of Johnny Depp he does a brilliant job of portraying an antique books collector obsessed with recovering a satanic bible from the clutches of an occult group.

Ghostbusters – A well made comedy.  Excellent special effects for the mid 1980s.  Thoroughly researched and put together.  I wish scriptwriters could still turn out work of this caliber.

The legend of Hell House – I don’t know if I can say that this was based (even indirectly) on Shirley Jackson’s House on haunted hill.  Both movies are quite similar.  Though I find Legend to be more horrifying than its predecessor.

Beetlejuice – Michael Keaton shows his comedic talents in this comedy about a pair of ghosts trying to reclaim their home from the new tenants; a pair of yuppies from New York City.

The Exorcist – I will be frank.  I am not a fan of gory movies or over the top so-called horror movies.  They really aren’t horror movies.  They are shocking movies with lots of blood.  To me horror is something more subdued and malevolent.  This is why I like this movie.  The evil and horror sneaks up on you little by little.  It is still the only movie that scares me.  Everyone talks about the infamous pea soup scene but they tend to forget (perhaps on purpose) the horror built up to that point.  It’s the little things you don’t see off camera that allow the imagination to run wild and scare you more.

The Exorcist III – The Exorcist series was widely panned and I guess with some good reason but I find III did a good job of tying back to the original story.  Brad Dourif does an over the top job as a demonic serial killer


movies as complex social commentary

A couple of weeks ago I saw a very good biopic about Alejandro Jodorowski, an avant-garde director, that tried to bring out a version of the science fiction novel, Dune, to the big screen back in the 1970s.  Apart from directing he has been known to star, produce, and screenwrite his movies.  One of the things that he said in the movie struck me as very revealing.

“The challenge of creating a movie is to take what is essentially the auditory experience of reading and turning it into a visual experience”

This is a problem that I have seen in various attempts to adapt very good books into movies.  For example the stories of H.P. Lovecraft are notorious for being nearly impossible to capture on the screen.  The few times they have been adapted they were not only box office flops but dramatic flops.

Part of the problem is that the elements found in some books such as the setting descriptions, character descriptions, even the general tone of a novel are hard to represent on the screen.

That’s why for me it’s a pleasure to find those screen writers that are consummate professionals and can turn something that would normally reside in the pages of a book and capture not just the basic elements of the story but the essence of the tale.  I think it’s a special skill.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about a book I read a couple of months ago but I haven’t quite known how to approach it.  David Itzkoff from the New York Times wrote a book about the movie Network.  The book is mainly about the making of the movie but for me the most important part was about the writer, Paddy Chayefsky.  A truly brilliant writer, the term prophetic is usually used to describe his work.  He takes complex subjects that he could probably have put down on paper but his preferred medium was visual (movies and TV).

His works pretty accurately summarized the post war change of the nuclear family in the 1950s (Marty), the coming institutionalization of modern health care (The Hospital), and the turn towards “reality programming” in TV (Network).

If you haven’t caught any of these movies I would urge you to catch-all of them but Network is the jewel in the crown.  The movie centers around a failing TV network that exploits a mentally disturbed man, Howard Beale, for ratings and follows it up with covertly supporting and filming a criminal group of revolutionaries for a TV show and then having them execute Beale on live television for more ratings.

Along the way Chayefsky pens a truly disturbing scene about the corporate view of the world and nature.

The movie delves deeply into what we might expect in the future (back in the 70s) of television programming and considers just how ruthless corporations can be about getting their way.

Chayefsky creates complicated supporting characters, each with their own fears and desires and all striving to control Howard.  The movie has mini subplots revolving around the marriage of one of the supporting characters and the unspoken machinations of the corporation in charge trying to make as much money as possible.

But Chayefsky isn’t alone in creating works that would have a lot to say about the future that we would live in.  Other luminaries would tackle a wide range of issues and let us look at the possible dystopian worlds that could occur if we were not vigilant and that have partly occurred anyways.   Most of these are only found in movie form.  I could write entire articles about each (and still may one day), but briefly:

  • Harry Harrison tackled global warming, overpopulation, and resource shortages in Soylent Green.
  • George Lucas took a page from Aldous Huxley and explored social engineering and drug escapism in THX1138
  • Ray Bradbury delved into the degradation of culture and literacy in Fahrenheit 451
  • Phillip K Dick explored the thin line between man and machine in Blade Runner
  • Andrew Niccol considered the social ramifications of genetic engineering in Gattaca
  • John Carpenter did a brilliant send up of runaway capitalism in They Live

These movies provide me as much satisfaction to me as would a well written book.  They provide all the elements that I would find in other media and to me at they have a lot to consider and think about long after the image fades from the screen.

youtube, facebook, twitter and the rise of the new media model

Entertainment, communications, and advertising have been changing in the last 15 years as never before.  They are set to change even more radically in the next five to ten years.

The tried and true models of yesteryear; TV networks, movies, radio, sports, and the music industry have all been shaken to their foundations by the rise of the internet.  Some have adapted better than others and some are on the edge of extinction.

The power of a single internet event to reach out to millions and even tens of millions of people at a time is now undeniable.  How people, companies, and even governments harness that power is what is being debated and shaped at the moment.  The one’s that figure out how to utilize and monetize this force will be the winners in this bonanza.  The losers will fade into history and become little more than Wikipedia entries.

Facebook and Twitter have been publicly battling it out for the last few years.  Both are scrambling to add more and more people to their rolls and trying to capture people’s attention. YouTube also is also adding more people to their rolls but in a much quieter fashion.

All three are depending more and more on the mobile market.  The mobile versions of these sites all have advertising in one form or another.  Ads come in the form of static and unobtrusive side ads or full screen ads played before the featured content comes on.

In Facebook and Twitter you actually have to pay to promote your posts to appear to a wider audience but you don’t have the guarantee that people will actually click on your ad to see what you sell or do.

In YouTube the ads come in the form of the television ads that we all are familiar with.  These ads are either a minutes long ad that can be bypassed after 5 seconds or an ad that is 30 seconds or less that can’t be bypassed.  In order to catch the viewer’s attention, the advertisers have become very creative.  They take ads that on TV would be 1 to 2 minutes long and shrink them down to make their case in seconds and keep the person engaged.  The static ads in Twitter and Facebook don’t do this.

Another thing I have had pointed out to me is that in Facebook and Twitter the users take on the role of bait for advertising by creating content for others to come in and see or they’re potential targets for that advertising.  Other than getting access to the site they are not compensated for their content.

YouTube actively engages with the public in a different way.  YouTube of course wants people to click on ads, but content creators can be incentivized to create content.  YouTuber’s can monetize their content.  With persistence and creative content you could actually make YouTube into a full time job.  Further if you get a sponsor then you’ve really got it made.

Another thing I have been admiring lately about YouTube has been their attempts to organize their main content providers (channels) and get them to create new content, cooperate, and exchange ideas with each other.  In particular I have been amazed by 3 YouTubers.

Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart, and Grace Helbig are three twenty somethings that each have followings in the hundreds of thousands.  They regularly appear in each others videos, they film each other, support each other, and just recently they parlayed their success into a feature-length film sold on their channels and only available online.

Recently one of them, Grace Helbig, left her old YouTube channel (owned by another group) to work on her own channel.  She basically left the  channel with 2.4 million subscribers to start from scratch.  As of mid February 2014 she is back up to 1.5 million subscribers and adding people all the time.  This at a time when conventional TV viewership is dropping.

It’s not only YouTube that is creating original content.  Other online powerhouses are creating content for online customers.  NetFlix, Hulu, and Amazon are also getting into the game by creating original online content and shows.  Some of it supported by advertising dollars and some by subscription fees.

Are Facebook and Twitter taking note?  Sort of.  Twitter has Vine and Facebook has Instagram. Both have short video formats that will be perfect for the mobile market advertising formats.  If advertisers are clever enough then they should be able to make use of these short formats to sell their goods.

But I am really liking what I am seeing out of YouTube.  The idea that talented people who were previously just viewers and unappreciated content creators can now monetize their content and become a part of the process is really appealing to me.  It’s not all sunshine of course.  YouTube still takes about 45% of the advertising revenue stream (which some content creators consider extremely high) but it’s something that can be adjusted over time.

As we move more and more into this digital age where ideas and thought are becoming more and more important, I think we need to rethink the old media models and start to consider that entertainment and information are no longer flowing down from central sources from on high but flowing freely up, down, left, and right across this world.  Those that realize this will successfully adapt and be able to reap the benefits of this new age.

cutting cable TV

Among the worst habits that I’ve had in this lifetime has been an acute addiction to television.  I was addicted to the video nanny since I was a kid and kept up the habit over the years.

It’s only been in the last decade that the addiction has waned.  I first started noticing the disturbing trend on regular network television of substituting “reality” programming for actual writing.  Shows like “Survivor”, “amazing race”, and “Big brother” pulled in viewers and allowed programmers to skimp on the writing.

Regular shows got bad too.  The writing became uninspired, sometimes it was almost directly lifted from shows I had seen from the last quarter century.  Formulaic approaches played ad nauseam.

A few gems still exist of course.  “Big Bang theory” is a notable example and it has garnered fans for coming up with fresh new material but by and large it’s a wasteland.  Reality shows that are scripted, fake TV drama, more violence, more sex, more appeal to the lowest common denominator.

My set lays idle every night gathering dust.  I don’t even try to look for shows anymore.  I’m filling my time nowadays with books, the internet, and friends.  I find it much more satisfying.  I was afraid that by quitting TV I would miss something important.  The opposite is true.  By spending so much time on TV I have missed so much of my life.  I should have made the change sooner.



Arrested Development Season 4 review

Again, this is a review of Season 4 of Arrested Development and will feature several spoilers.  If you don’t want to know what happens, stay out.



You have been warned.




I just finished watching all 15 episodes of Season 4.  I paced myself and took it one show per night determined to enjoy it slowly and take in every double and triple entendre and catch every reference that they offered up.  The first run of Arrested Development was such a delight to watch.  A carefully crafted comedy gem.

How disappointed was I with this new season.

Maybe it’s because the first iteration of the show was so good that nothing that comes later will ever be able to match it.  Maybe it’s because after such a long hiatus it’s difficult to pick up the reins and start off where you left before.  Maybe I have to admit it’s just not as good.

Season 4 basically takes on a series of events happening in the present and views them from the perspective of a different family member each episode.

After the end of the last show of Season 3, Lucille, the mother, is arrested.  The three fugitives headed to Mexico (Michael, his son, and his dad) decide to return to save the family.  Michael falls apart and makes a series of business mistakes which eventually force him to try to sell the movie rights to his family’s story to Ron Howard.  He spends the episodes running into family members trying to get them to sign away their rights.  He also falls in love with Ron Howard’s illegitimate daughter called Rebel, who he thinks is Ron Howard’s girlfriend.

Lindsey splits from Tobias and goes to India where she is told to become more giving.  She returns and falls in love with an environmentalist and through a series of mishaps becomes the mistress to a right-wing politician and eventually succeeds him as the candidate for his office.

Tobias takes up with a drug addict and is mistakenly arrested as a sex offender.  He winds up at Lucille Austero’s rehab clinic as a therapist and tries to get the inmates to put on a play at a local event where the entire family is gathered.

Gob has continued to fail at everything.  He resumes his relationship with George Micheal’s ex girlfriend, Ann.  After embarrassing her on TV, they break off their engagement.  He sees a chance to embarrass his nemesis, tony wonder, but instead starts falling in love with him.  Unable to handle this he takes his forget me now pills.

George Bluth has started a men’s retreat in the desert with his brother Oscar.  They charge obscene amounts of money to wealthy executives to feel good about themselves.  After they both ingest massive amounts of maca root they undergo personality reversals and Oscar becomes aggressive and George becomes meek and passive.  George hatches a plot with Lucille to exploit the government and build a wall on the border with Mexico thinking that the retreat is on the border.  It is not, it is actually in Mexico.   They go from wanting the wall to trying to stop it but still getting paid.  Oscar learns of this and tries to thwart their plans.

Lucille is in a country club prison.  She is filmed for a reality show about country club prisons but makes enemies of a gang of oriental ladies.  She gets out on a work release program by agreeing to help Tobias out a Lucille Austero’s clinic to make a play.

Maeby got fired from her job and without income decided to stay in high school by pretending to be 17 for the next 5 years.  She tries several money-making ventures including accidentally prostituting her mother but she settles on exploiting George Michael for an internet app as the best idea.

Left without his mother Buster degenerates to making a life-size doll of his mother to relate to.  After his mother returns he tries to break free of her by taking up with Lucille Austero but again he seeks a mother figure.  He tries to re-enlist in the army but is kicked out.  He moves in with a right-wing politician trying to help veterans and has a short affair with his wife before being kicked out.  He is last seen being arrested for Lucille Austero’s alleged murder.

In many ways the season is about Michael and his relationship with George Michael.  After season 3 he goes to college.  In school he tries to be cool and just when he almost has it his father comes to live with him in his dorm room.  Maeby shows up and in an effort to look smart and rekindle his romance with his cousin he claims to have come up with an internet app to make people anonymous online called “Fake Block”.  It is actually an app for playing wood blocks.

Maeby hypes this up and lines up investors.  By coincidence, George Michael runs into Rebel and they start falling in love.  In the last episode both Bluth men realize what has happened and George Michael punches Michael.

Other side characters make appearances.  Lucille Austero is now the CEO of the bluth company and a candidate for congress.  Kitty Sanchez is ron howard’s assistant and gets Maeby fired.  Steve Holt reappears as a bug exterminator.

The new format is confusing.  Maybe if I watch it enough times I will get it.  But honestly the writing isn’t there.  In the first run, the storyline flowed.  The story went from one scene to another without pause.  In this season the story jerks and twitches.  It spasms from one scene to another.  The continuity is there but you really have to look to find it.

Moreover I get this sense of tiredness from some of the actors.  Michael Cera just does not seem like he wants to be there.  He was very hesitant to do another season and it shows in his acting.  Will Arnett resumes the role of Gob with less gusto than expected.  Alia Shawkat, who plays Maeby is also less than effective.

Like I said maybe it’s the fact that the first 3 seasons were so good and my expectations are just too high.  Something I fear will happen to Aggie football fans this year with last year’s success.  Then again maybe this season was just not that good.