Posts tagged ‘television’

September 3, 2016

#118) How not to complain #6: Friends in low places

Let’s start with the standard disclaimer: I agree with much of what is said in David Hopkins’ article for Medium in which he blames the TV show “Friends” for triggering “the downfall of Western Civilization.” I have no problem whatsoever with the phrases “American Idol” and “Reign of Terror” being used in the same sentence. I have endless sympathy for middle school chess club members who get bullied. As with other complaint deconstructions, however, the issue  is whether Hopkins will sway others to his side. Sure, the geeks who despised the ubiquity of “Friends” and its good-looking cast will nod until their coke-bottle glasses slip off their nose, but will he be able to give the beautiful people pause? Given the article’s descent from promising tongue-in-cheek to lecture, I’d say probably not.

The premise: David Schwimmer’s character, Ross, was set up as the program’s “fall guy” – portrayed in the beginning as a lovable misfit but later as an elitist nag who was too smart for the room. As Hopkins points out, “[A]ny time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas…one of his ‘friends’ was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares.” According to Hopkins, Ross’s rejection, both by the other characters and the show’s wide audience, was “the moment when much of America groaned, mid-sentence, at the voice of reason.”

The two main downfalls of Hopkins’ argument are themes that come up regularly among ineffective complaints: lack of historical context and lack of empathy/humor.

Hopkins points out that in 2004, the year the show ended, George W. Bush was elected to a second term,  Paris Hilton ruled supreme and Green Day’s Grammy winning album “American Idiot” was released. It was the year “when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value.” Hopkins himself was a middle school teacher at the time, a self-appointed protector of the nerdy kids under his tutelage in the chess club: “Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point …”

Well, 2004 might not have been the cultural and political pinnacle of Western civilization, but given selected information, any year can be made to look like pure idiocy. Would Hopkins have preferred to have lived in 1965 so he could watch first-run episodes of “My Mother, The Car”? Or in ’72 so he could attend the premier of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”?* Let the record show that in 1991, four years before “Friends” and thirteen before Hopkins’ “year that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture” former Cincinnati mayor Gerald N. Springer first took to the airwaves with his perennial Emmy winner. As for persecution of nerds, it’s been happening at least as far back as the 17th century when Galileo was convicted of heresy due to his crazy idea of a heliocentric universe and has continued through Mercury Records telling a certain power trio from Canada that their songs were too long and their lyrics had too many big words. And take it from me–nerds have been shoved into middle school lockers since at least the late ’80s, just like, uh, my, uh, friend…Joey…Jim Bob…uh, Schwartz. Yeah, that’s it, Schwartz.

One could also argue that since 2004, nerd culture has been increasingly embraced, even if superficially–twee, Silverlake, Zooey Deschanel. A case can also be made that, Kardashians notwithstanding, since “Friends” television has upped its game – “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Walking Dead”, “The Voice” and many other shows that people tell me are awesome.

History aside, Hopkins’ admonishment to “read a fucking book” probably won’t send folks on a beeline to the library any more than “stop buying so much shit” will keep them away from WalMart. Hopkins concludes with a positive note, asking us to “protect the nerds”: “Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways…we need these obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place.” His sympathy for nerds is admirable, but to be a more effective complainer, he also needs to sympathize – or at least empathize – with the quarterbacks and cheerleaders behind enemy lines.

*The only movie I have ever had to turn off

December 11, 2015

#102) Eu-“league”-ogy

I find myself in an unfamiliar position: mourning, or at least contemplating, the end of a favorite TV show. Most programs I’ve enjoyed over the years are either classics that were already in reruns by the time I started watching (“Honeymooners”), too short-lived for me to have developed much of a relationship with them (“Sarah Silverman Show”, “Drawn Together”) or are still on the air but past their prime (“Family Guy”, “South Park” and…sorry, but we all know it…”The Simpsons.”) I know many people who felt a sense of loss when “Mad Men”, “The Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad” and “How I Met Your Mother” ended or when Stewart left “The Daily Show” and I’m not saying their feelings weren’t legitimate; I just didn’t share them.

Now, after the series finale of “The League” I can better empathize.

“The League” didn’t change the world; it didn’t bring us noble or tragic characters; it didn’t employ visionary costume or set design, being nominally set in Chicago but clearly substantially filmed in Los Angeles. Many people believe it declined after the first few seasons and those opinions aren’t without reason. Sad as I am to see it go, it feels more like an inevitable goodbye to an over-the-hill superstar than the loss of one just beginning to achieve their potential. Still, you never want to see it end.

“The League” was a semi-scripted comedy about a group of friends and their addiction to fantasy football. They lied, cheated and colluded to win. Things would go wrong in every possible way for every character, not just for one evildoer whose dastardly deeds backfire. To be sure some of the plot twists required massive suspension of disbelief, but the laughs were pretty consistent.

It’s been said that “The Far Side” was successful because everyone felt as if cartoonist Gary Larson had made one just for them. I discovered “The League” in its second season (2010), around the same time I started my hiking website and submitting photos I’d taken on the hikes to various stock photography websites. I quickly learned that easily accessible stats about post views, affiliate sales and photo downloads were addictive and my cell phone etiquette would have made teenage girls blush. Similarly, the characters of “The League” are constantly looking at their phones for the latest updates on their players. The scene that clinched “The League” for me shows a character pleasuring himself not to Playboy or a porno but to his own fantasy lineup. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. For the next five years, I eagerly awaited the start of each season, watching reruns whenever I could during the off season (thanks to the improvisational chemistry of the cast, the reruns hold up surprisingly well) and even going so far as to create Mii characters on my Wii based on the show.

Behind all of the locker room and bro humor, “The League” actually provided some interesting commentary about friendships in modern times. No, not everyone bonds/clashes over fantasy football–but many social groups have subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of competition. Not everyone impulsively checks their fantasy stats on their phones, but let’s face it – the Phone Stack exists for a reason.

The plight of the series itself also might be seen, at least among folks like me who like to overthink such things, as commentary on our evolving relationship with technology. As New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger notes in this article, “That this is the show’s final season feels right somehow, in that fantasy sports are being taken over by…Internet sites that cater to a more intense, daily type of game played for serious money, often by strangers. The notion of a group of friends getting together with a poster board and player names handwritten on Post-it Notes seems…quaint…” Cynically, one could interpret the decline of group-oriented, season-long fantasy football leagues and the rise of day leagues as egotism and instant gratification giving way to bigger egotism and instant-er gratification. A more melancholy view might say that as we get older, the dynamics of many friendships and rat packs become more muted. The backstabbing and trash talking may fade, but so can the camaraderie.

Thus I bid a bittersweet farewell to Kevin, Jenny, Taco, Ruxin, Pete, Andre, Shiva, Rafi, Dirty Randy, Russell the Sex Addict and all the rest. Thanks for the laughs, thanks for making me feel like I was right there with you throwing back rounds at Gibson’s. Best of luck to all of you in your future endeavors. Now SUCK IT!


May 19, 2015

#93) Escape artists

Note: this is a simulblog, appearing both on “D-Theory” and “Positive Music Place.”

When one of my friends posted her concerns that the internet would spoil the finale of “Mad Men” before she had a chance to watch it, I reassured her in my typically smart-ass manner: “Already saw it. Vader is Luke’s father.”

My knowledge of “Mad Men” consists of having watched about 10 minutes of it and listening to people praise it. The show has helped me see that just because something is popular, that doesn’t make it bad. I get the show’s appeal: timeless themes of pride undone by a tragic flaw set against a glamorous ’60s backdrop is a winning combination. I’ve realized that the problem is not Don Draper; it’s another “D”. My tastes in TV are escapist (see #44 and #84 for more info). Thus, if I don’t want to be judged for favoring lighter entertainment when it comes to the tube, I shouldn’t judge those who prefer Adele to Mahler.

A few days ago I was listening to a popular country song that was the requested first dance at a wedding where I was performing with the 40-Oz. Band. Overhearing it, my wife gave me a look that needed no explanation. All I could do was tell her, “Not everyone wants to be challenged on their wedding day.” Similarly, not everyone wants to be challenged after a long day at the office.

Like all creative professionals, us musicians put so much work and heart into what we do that when someone doesn’t notice, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We shake our heads when people download Nicki Minaj tracks by the millions  while our heart-felt oeuvre, honed by the light of a midnight lamp, is met with indifference at Open Mic night.

Yet we ignore, too: whether it’s by eating fast food instead of going to the farmer’s market; by reading “Twilight” instead of Shakespeare or by watching “The League” and “Shipping Wars” instead of “Mad Man.” That doesn’t make us bad people; everyone needs convenience and escapes now and then. Most dieticians agree that you can’t expect yourself to eat perfectly 24/7. Play for the people who want the challenge, don’t let the ones who don’t bring you down and step outside your own comfort zone now and then. You may pleasantly surprise a writer, chef, candle maker or photographer who assumed you were just looking for an escape.

September 21, 2014

#86) Facebook and the NFL: When sucking doesn’t matter

Everyone’s pissed off at the NFL. Everyone’s disgusted with Facebook. Everyone will be watching the NFL this Sunday and letting Facebook know about it.  Yes, despite–or perhaps because of–their efforts to alienate their fan/consumer bases, Facebook and the NFL aren’t going anywhere.

We hate them but we can’t look away. It’s more than the car-crash-staring instinct; it’s a true love-hate relationship. Nobody hates Myspace or baseball. You can only hate something or someone that you once truly loved.

We started loving football in the 1950s and 60s. Football looked better on television than baseball.  Baseball expanded, diluting the talent pool and bringing the game to cities where it didn’t have a chance, such as Miami*. Free agency meant that baseball teams no longer stayed together. World Series games started too late but the Super Bowl was always on a Sunday and the whole family could watch it. With far fewer games than any other sport, each one was an event. We’d anticipate them and spend Monday talking about what those damn Steelers should have done differently. The NFL became so big that it thrived even without a team in the country’s second biggest market, Los Angeles. Rotisserie leagues in baseball became a thing, but NFL fantasy leagues became a bigger thing.

We started loving Facebook in the late ’00s–April of 2008, to be precise, when it officially became the #1 most visited social network site. Myspace had shown us how easy and fun it can be to put together an online scrapbook of photos, websites, songs and pithy quotations, but it had become too messy and impersonal. Facebook made connecting with that kid you used to beat the crap out of (or perhaps vice versa) back in 8th grade simple and easy. Facebook translated better to smartphones.

Then, to use Facebook relationship status terminology, it got complicated. Facebook faced questions about the privacy of its users’ information. Naysayers pointed out that it was losing ground to Instagram and Pinterest. The user experience started to seem more about getting into political arguments with virtual strangers than reuniting with long lost friends. In the NFL, Janet Jackson happened. Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress happened. Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson followed. Yes, it got complicated.

Or did it?

As of this writing, Facebook is ranked as the second-most visited site in the world according to Alexa. The NFL saw a 7% increase in viewers of the first Thursday game of this season compared to the first Thursday game of last season. We may say that Facebook is dead and that the NFL only cares once its sponsors pull out. We’re going to watch anyways. According to Alexa, we’re going to spend an average of 27 minutes per day on Facebook this month. Some of us might even call 911 if we can’t log on. No number of poorly handled press conferences or allegations of privacy violations can change that.

It’s not that we buy in in spite of the fact that the NFL and Facebook suck. It’s not that we buy in because they suck. It doesn’t matter if the NFL and Facebook suck or not. We’re married to them. Myspace was our high school crush whom it was easy to leave when things didn’t work out; Facebook is our spouse.  Facebook and the NFL made good impressions on us when it counted and continued to not suck for long enough to convince us to spend the rest of our lives with them. Yes, some of us might get divorced–we all have the friend who has actually followed through on their plans to swear off Facebook and goes to the park on Sunday to feed the ducks while the rest of us watch ball–but most of us won’t. Years of marriage has taught us that fighting usually leads to great make-up sex.  Besides, is it really worth it just to have to file all of that paperwork and decide who gets what? We’ve all got better things to do.

Like watch the New York Jets and post about it on Facebook.

*Yes, I know the Marlins have won the World Series twice. Nobody gives a fuck.

September 3, 2014

#84) The ten best quotes from the first five seasons of “The League”

I love “The League”. At first I thought it was just a guilty pleasure, but over the last few years, it’s become a full-on obsession; at least if creating Mii characters on my Wii to resemble the cast makes me obsessed. In tribute to the show’s upcoming sixth season, I present a few of my favorite gems from this semi-improvised fantasy football comedy.  If you haven’t watched the show, perhaps this might clue you into what you’re missing; if you’re already a fan, enjoy…and let me know if I missed your favorite.

#10) Rafi: “I am day drunk…get ready to see my dick!” (“The Lockout” – season 3, episode 1)

#9) Kevin: “It’s not about race, it’s about the color of your skin!” (“Carmenjello” – season 3, episode 7)

#8) Jenny: “Sad little man, no!” (“The Expert Witness” – season 2, episode 9)

#7) Ruxin: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to jerk off to inter-racial porn.” (“Thanksgiving” – season 3, episode 8)

#6) Jenny: “Kevin, hold my purse!” (“The Usual Bet” – season 1, episode 5)

#5) Rafi: “It’s like the white rain of a thousand loads. You’ll basically be able to climb the walls like Spiderman.” (“The Lockout” – season 3, episode 1)

#4) Jenny: “How big do you think you are, Kevin?” (“Training Camp” – season 4, episode 1)

#3) Sgt. Panico: “Ever have to tell your friend his dick got blown off on the battle field and then realized it was YOUR dick?” (“Chalupa vs. the Cutlet” – season 5, episode 3)

#2) Jenny: “It’s a tur-guinea!” (“Thanksgiving” – season 3, episode 8)

And the number one quote from the first five seasons of “The League” –

Andre: “I’m inside me!” (“Vegas Draft” – season 2, episode 1)

Agree? Disagree? Either way, let’s hope Season 6 gives us some moments to remember. Shivakamini Somakandarkram!


December 21, 2013

#67) Rosa Parks is the new Hitler

It’s official: Rosa Parks is the new Hitler.

By that, I don’t mean that she’s responsible for the slaughter of 11 million people or that she has a recognizable mustache.  What I mean is, like that of Hitler, Rosa Parks’s name has become a last resort for anyone about to lose a political argument.

It’s generally agreed that during a debate or discussion, if one side has to use Hitler to make their point, by proxy, they’ve admitted defeat.  There’s even a name for the act of bringing Hitler into an argument: Godwin’s Law.  Just as people seem to have no trouble comparing their enemies to Hitler, there’s an emerging trend to conveniently align oneself, or one’s allies, with the civil rights pioneer.  Early adopters were doing it at least as far back as 2001.  After Sandy Hook I had to “unfriend” someone for sharing a photo comparing Parks’s right to sit at the front of the bus with the right to own an AR-15The latest example of playing the “Parks card” comes from congressional candidate Ian Bayne (R-IL).  He compared the plight of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson–recently suspended by A&E, the channel that broadcasts the show, for making anti-gay remarks–to that of Parks: “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians.”

On behalf of my fellow political independents who on any given issue usually take the side of whoever sounds the least crazy and desperate, I implore Bayne and his like-minded colleagues to lay low on this one.  Don’t make yourselves look nutty.  Last year the GOP lost what should have been an easy-win presidential election on social issues alone.   Insanity is, as the old saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting different results.

I happen to disagree with A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson, not because I sympathize with his sentiments–I don’t–but because he’s DOING WHAT HE’S SUPPOSED TO BE DOING.  If A&E is trying to earn points by showing Robertson and his family at the dinner table, heads bowed in prayer, they also need to accept the less attractive side of his Christianity.  Punishing  him for expressing homophobic views is akin to Indiana University’s firing of Bob Knight for having too many temper tantrums.  But comparing him to Rosa Parks comes off as a little bit self-important.  The very conservatives such as Bayne who embrace capitalism and preach personal responsibility should see Robertson’s suspension as a market response, not censorship.

Nancy Pelosi recently encouraged her colleagues to “embrace the suck.”  Let’s all make that a goal for 2014.  There are certain issues on which not everyone will see eye to eye; that’s a given.  But we have to start somewhere, and we can begin with making our discourse more civilized and literate.  Whatever the debate may be, let’s just agree to leave Hitler and Rosa Parks out of it.

August 9, 2012

#44) TV Review: “Shipping Wars”

Can a show that has the word “wars” in its title actually bring something new to the table?  Believe it or not, A&E’s new reality show “Shipping Wars” actually does.

The easiest way to describe the show would be as a mix of “American Pickers” and “Storage Wars.”  It follows independent truckers who ship cargo that is considered too high-risk for larger shipping companies.   Items featured on the show include the last car that Elvis ever owned, a statue of Willie Mays making “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, a food truck, two live rodeo bulls, and more.  At the beginning of each episode, the truckers bid on jobs, and the show follows them on their journeys from pickup to delivery.

There are several interesting elements to the show that keep it entertaining.  The truckers, of course, must “guesstimate” their expenses and consider the risks involved with each item when placing their bids.  Unexpected obstacles invariably come up, and they often have to improvise and incur additional expenses.  In some cases, they can offset their out-of-pocket costs by picking up extra cargo.

The show also keeps things interesting by following the truckers across the country, on hauls of all distances.  It takes on an “American Pickers” flavor as it travels America’s back roads, meeting all kinds of people and coming across all kinds of items.

If there’s any weak spot in the show, it’s the characters.  Many of their onscreen personas have obvious “Storage Wars” counterparts, and while it’s interesting to see how they solve the problems presented by the unpredictable nature of their job, the show would benefit from less trash-talking and more actual stories (only two jobs are followed in each episode).  Nonetheless, you find yourself rooting for them to drop off their cargo on time and in good condition.  You wince when they get pulled over or have a flat tire; you breathe a sigh of relief when a customer gives them good feedback and they turn a profit.

Will “Shipping Wars” last?  Will it stand out from all of its competitors?  Like the truckers it follows, it might not be perfect, but it gets the job done more often than not, and will likely have a good run for itself in a saturated market.

November 28, 2011

#32) Four life lessons from one commercial

It’s not even the Super Bowl yet, and I’ve seen a commercial that I can’t get out of my head.  I speak of the recent Audi commercial featuring former Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, here’s the basic set-up: An angry chef threatens to fire one of his employees after he makes a mistake.  Jackson, known for the “zen” philosophies he used in his coaching, strolls by calmly and says to the chef, “I’ve found that anger is the enemy of instruction.” (Lesson one – as a music teacher, I’ve already gotten a lot of mileage from this one.)  The chef says, “You don’t know the egos I have to deal with.”  (Lesson two: no matter how bad your problems may seem, someone else has it worse and is dealing with it.)  Jackson knowingly says, “You’re probably right.”  (Three: never enter a battle of wits with someone who’s unarmed).  As he makes his exit, the chef says, “Thank you…whoever you are.” (Four: you never know when Phil Jackson might enter your restaurant, so act as if it could happen at any time.)

Now, was the commercial successful in its ultimate goal of selling me a car and not just imparting life lessons?  Well, as a music teacher, it’s unlikely I’ll be buying an Audi any time in the near future, but should this or any of my other blogs take off and make me rich, I just might swing by the local dealership for a test drive.

No matter what happens, this commercial still beats the hell out of that annoying one for Lexus.