Category Archives: Television

1000 Words: Warped

Pollyannists in the early days of television predicted the new technology would raise the level of the general public’s intelligence immeasurably. Your granny and granddad would spend their evenings watching educational programs, learning about life and the world around them, visiting far-away lands vicariously, viewing “King Lear” or “Rigoletto,” taking in lectures on the atom, say, or Darwin’s theory.

Not The Real Housewives.

Instead, through the years we’ve vegged out on Milton Berle, “The Brady Bunch,” and “Real Housewives.”

It’s a quaint idea to think, at one time in our holy land’s history, some people actually had faith in the better angels of the American nature. Those Pollyannists understood that better angels was a metaphor whereas a significant percentage of our sisteren and brethren even today believe angels, winged supernatural entities, are actually flittering among us.

We Believe.

Far from upping the level of our intelligence, television as well as the movies have skewed how the average person views the world to the point that we’re not just uninformed and uneducated, we’re living in a fantasy world of funhouse mirrors and hallucinatory images.

I’d been thinking about this for many years. Then, in 2016, something happened that brought it all home to me. A man with no legislative experience; no international relations portfolio; no position papers; no writings on war, peace, the environment, poverty, public health, infrastructure, natural resources, energy, political asylum, scientific research, or organizational structure; and proudly possessing no wish or hope to delve into any of these topics was elected President of the United States of America. It was as if upon learning she had leukemia, a person stopped a passing pedestrian on a busy downtown sidewalk and said, Would you treat me for it?

After the election of the 45th President, I tried to come up with a handful of reasons how this turn of events came to be. The one that stood out for me, the inarguable top reason why a lunkhead was bestowed title of Leader of the Free World, was that he’d been a TV star. From 2004 through 2015, Donald Trump came into people’s living rooms playing a successful, bold, non-nonsense, fabulously effective business mogul. His NBC-TV program, “The Apprentice,” drew some 20 million viewers a night early in its run. The numbers dwindled a bit through the years, but even at its low, Trump’s show drew 7.6 million viewers.

Statesman.

That means a significant percentage of the American populace, having known nothing else about him, came to understand that Donald Trump was was the one man who could rescue us from the cesspool our land was turning into. Hell, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz and Chris Christie and Marco Rubio among the rest of his Republican primary rivals were senators and governors and the like, so they couldn’t be expected to fix what they’d helped create, for chrissakes. And Hillary Clinton, a senator, Secretary of State, and wife of a former president, similarly had waded in the mud up to her hips.

No, a man who made billions of dollars, pushing, insisting, arm-twisting, never giving up was the man for us. We knew this because we watched his TV show. A TV show, I might add, he produced. He told us he was the man and we believed it.

“After sleeping,” reads 2021 article in US News and World Report, “Americans spen(d) most of their time watching television….” What we see on the television screen, and perhaps even more so on the movie screen, is life. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and rigorous observation, has been erased. If we’re constantly bombarded by self-aggrandizing images of a shady businessman, if we come to think that our nation’s courtrooms are presided over almost exclusively by black female judges (have you watched any TV since, say, 1981?), if we begin to believe only attractive, young, blonde women go missing (a CNN stock-in-trade chestnut that likely inspired Black Lives Matter), if we believe that baristas live in fabulous Manhattan lofts, it’s because we’re no longer living an authentic life, we’re no longer seeing reality, we’re just sitting at home watching TV (or going out to the movies) and taking that as the true picture of existence.

Life.

Here’s a recent example. HBO has released a limited series entitled “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” It’s the purported story the championship run of the NBA’s Los Angeles franchise in the 1980s. Only it portrays Lakers general manager and Hall of Fame legend Jerry West as a mean drunk, Kareem Abdul Jabbar as an insensitive lout, and Magic Johnson as a cad who impregnates his wife’s friend. None of this is altogether true and HBO admits it. In a statement, the programmer said, “HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes. Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such.”

A True Story, Made Up.

In other words, even though this story is about real people, real events, and a real organization presented as an historical drama, don’t be fooled into thinking any of it is real.

A strict adherence to dictionary definitions might indicate the program is, basically, a lie. But, if HBO would have its way, lying is nothing more than dramatic license.

A few years ago, the movie “The Imitation Game,” sought to portray the life of brilliant mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing. On of the key dramatic story points of the movie was the relationship between Turing and his boss, World War II British Commander Alexander Denniston. Acc’d’g to the movie, Denniston stood on his head to stymie Turing’s efforts to design a machine that would break the German code. Only Turing’s iron will and supreme confidence allowed him to overcome the petty, unimaginative Denniston. Problem was, that’s the precise opposite of what happened. Denniston, in reality, was Turing’s biggest supporter, a person who stuck his neck out to protect the controversial researcher when much of the British military and government would happily have seen him go away.

Now, someone whom history should remember as heroic for helping Turing break the Nazi code, is seen as a movie villain.

There is no more reality, only what we see on a screen. And we’re not the least bit smarter for it.

 

Torture: Being forced To Watch TV

The day before Thanksgiving I found myself watching broadcast television. Not by choice, mind you. I haven’t had my own broadcast-receiving TV since, oh, the spring of 1997. A few years before that, I’d already eschewed broadcast news and found my mental health much improved for it. By ’97, I realized that all of broadcast television is designed to make the viewer feel profoundly unhappy with one’s lot in life — his car, her body, the cleanliness of their toilet, the smell of their armpits, the whiteness of their teeth, their lack of bravado in gunfights, and their inability to fuck every comely or handsome figure who saunters into the room.

I haven’t regretted for one nanosecond my decision to boot broadcast TV.

But Wednesday, I was in a position wherein I was unable to run, shrieking, out of the room when the TV, tuned to WTHR in Indianapolis, was turned on. See, I’m in the middle of a six-week course of daily hyperbaric chamber treatments. Also known as HBO (for hyperbaric oxygen), the treatments are a must for the likes of diabetics who’ve lost or are at risk of losing toes or feet, say, to their ravages of their horribly unfortunate disease or, for those like me, who’ve undergone cancer radiation treatment. In my case, my cancer was in my neck so I’d had to submit to a month and a half of daily linear-beam radiation therapy. The result was the smashing of a number of malignant lymph nodes surrounding my thyroid gland as well as the weakening of my jaw to the point that the bone now has the structural integrity of styrofoam and the blood vessels supplying said mandible have been shrunk to a thread, making me vulnerable to tooth abscesses and unable to heal in that locale should any dental work be done. Turns out, I indeed do have an abscess now and that work can’t be done until, through HBO, my mandibular blood vessel has been strengthened and enriched.

The HBO treatments work like this: I lie in a coffin-like airtight container for hours a day breathing pure oxygen at twice normal atmospheric pressure. Every day, I strip down, take off all jewelry and my glasses, get questioned about whether I’ve put on underarm deodorant or skin lotion, get physically examined, and then lay down, flat on my back, my arms at my sides, and sealed into this clear tube. The hope is at the end of six weeks the blood flow in my jaw will be so enhanced that I’ll be able to get my broken tooth removed and then start scheduling three other surgeries that can’t be done right now because of that abscess. Phew! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.

A Hyperbaric Chamber.

You might notice the TV screen suspended above the HBO tube in the photo. That’s cool. The people who run these devices realize people like me would probably prefer to leap off tall buildings to lying in a coffin-like tube for hours every day so, to ameliorate that unhappiness, they provide TV. I can’t bring a book or my crossword puzzles into the tube because, for the same reason I have to strip and have no oily substances on my body, the pure oxygen environment is highly flammable. (Those of us of a certain age might remember the fatal fire that took the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in January, 1967. During a practice run, they were sealed into their capsule breathing pure oxygen and a stray spark set off a conflagration within it. The astronauts died of asphyxiation within moments.)

The Interior of Apollo 1 after the Fire.

The people at my HBO facility (ironically, just yards from the cancer treatment center where I did my radiation stint back in 2016), allow us patients to bring in DVDs to watch during our sessions. And for those who don’t collect movies, the facility actually has a library of DVDs, donated by angels and past patients. I bring in my own DVDs and Wednesday I’d been watching On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Karl Malden and scored by Leonard Bernstein. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times but each time, I’m blown away by the acting chops displayed therein.

Steiger (L) and Brando, Playing Brothers in On the Waterfront.

Brando’s performance, along with a couple of other films he’d done around the same time, essentially redefined how actors act in movies. For that matter, all the main players were adherents of the then-revolutionary Stanislavski system or method of acting. They were no longer “stage actors” but fully immersed themselves into character.

For my money, if someone wants to assert that On the Waterfront is the greatest movie ever made, I wouldn’t argue too much

In any case, the movie ended with about twenty minutes left in my HBO session. The attendant then switched the TV to broadcast and I was treated to a program called Daily Blast Live, wherein four people sit behind a desk and blather. The four seem to be straight out of a TV producer’s dreamworld of diversity, with a black man and woman and a white man and woman, ranging in age from early 30s to late-ish 40s, all imbued with nice, clean, middle-class values, competing with each other to convince us that they’re just like you and me.

Watching these four was a revelation. I should have known, but have forgotten in the last quarter century, how godawfully vacuous broadcast TV is. I felt as if I were watching an over-the-top satire of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. In fact, for a hot few moments, I actually thought I was watching some take-off on all these daytime TV shows. But no, this was the real thing and, for chrissakes, if this is what America watches on a regular basis no wonder so many people are thrashing about, subscribing to conspiracy theories, voting for carnival barkers for president, refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, and every other sin we’ve been committing for decades in this holy land. Broadcast TV has warped peoples’ minds, shattered our collective view of reality, and turned us into slack-jawed zombies.

None of this, of course, is any breaking news, but, as I say, I’d so completely divorced myself from this sick oeuvre that I’d forgotten how bizarre it all is.

The four were talking about the next day’s Thanksgiving meal and, swear to god, they spent at least ten minutes discussing whether one should eat like a pig, stuffing one’s self to near nausea, or perhaps take it easy and eat in something akin to moderation. They argued this point with all the passion and ferocity of Karl Marx and Sen. Joe McCarthy in some fantasy world fighting about communism versus capitalism.

A Knock-down, Drag-out Battle.

One of them, the black man, posited, “I think it’s Thanksgiving (quite an astute observation, I might add) and we should eat to our heart’s content!” He uttered this with all the conviction of a man calling for an end to the child sex slave trade. The white man shook his head vigorously and countered, “No, no, no, no! It’s better to eat small portions. That way, you can enjoy your food and not suffer afterward.” He offered this position with the assurance of Einstein chatting about his special relativity theory. This went on for long minutes until the black woman said , “Well, let’s all agree there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting back on the sofa with your belt undone.” The other three nodded as if she’d advocated for an end to all wars.

The white woman then shifted gears and introduced a remote interview with a women who starred in one of those Real Housewives shows, which I didn’t even know was a thing anymore. This woman was from Orange County. Leaning forward toward the camera, the white woman asked, earnestly, what the Real Housewife lady was going to do tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day. Get ready for a shock: the lady said she and her family were going to eat a big meal!

After running down the list of things she was going to have on her table — all of which were typical Thanksgiving fare, to which the Daily Blast panel oohed and aahed as if she were ticking off exotic treats from distant foreign lands — the Real Housewife lady turned deadly serious and asked if she could be indulged in crowing about her young daughter’s recent fabulous accomplishment. Given license to crow, she then revealed her daughter had participated in an event that raised money for some life-threatening disease research. The Daily Blast gang gaped and gasped and, honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one or more of them demanded she be nominated for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

Mercifully, my HBO session had come to an end and while I was being de-pressurized, the speakers within my tube went silent.

When the attendant brought me out of the tube, I resisted with all my might the urge to ask her if she watched this show every day. And, if she’d said yes, I was fully prepared to yell, “What in the goddamned hell is wrong with you?”

I dunno, maybe none of this is news to some of you but I drove away from the HBO facility in a daze. I still can’t believe this is how we entertain ourselves, this is how we get informed about the world around us. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. Look at what in the hell we’ve become.

Hot Air: Show’s Over

I’ve been so petrified by the rise and rule of Li’l Duce, fearing a hostile takeover of the US by him and his family, that the only logical outcome of his arrival on the scene escaped me. His people are getting tired of his act. They want to change the channel.

He’s never been anything but a cheap TV star, the 2010s version of Milton Berle. The TV audience ate him up and snickered in everybody else’s faces when he did the most outlandish things. But even his base is falling asleep in front of the TV (that is, except for the radical militia terrorists and the dyed-in-the-wool racists — they’re with him until the end of time). More people tuned in to Biden’s snooze-fest than Trump’s burlesque show. That’s just one piece of evidence bolstering my argument. Another is the long, long, long, long, long long, long lines at polling places across America.

Nobody in my lifetime has driven more people to the polls than President Gag. I’d like to kick them all in their asses for voting for him in the first place in ’16, or opting to sit that election out, but let’s bygones be bygones. We’re seeing a national cancellation of the show.

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“When you’re young, you look at television and think there’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want.” — Steve Jobs

WHO WILL MITT BE NOW?

Hat tip to Roger Ebert for pointing out this short essay by Garry Wills on Mitt Romney’s legacy in the New York Review of Books.

Wills, the respected author and history professor at Northwestern University, doesn’t think much of Mitt. And that’s not because he disagrees with Mitt’s stances on things.

Garry Wills

For instance, Wills praises Barry Goldwater despite having little in common philosophically with the late conservative leader.

No, Wills posits that Romney does not measure up as a man to others who’ve lost presidential elections. Wills says almost all also-rans in the quadrennial beauty fests have gone on to contribute to the world long after their political humiliations.

Romney, Wills thinks, won’t.

You May Be President, But I’m Rich!

Read the piece, it won’t take you long.

THAT AIN’T FOOD

Personal to all those who are mourning the possible demise of Hostess Brands’ flagship products, Twinkies, Ho Hos, and Ding Dongs

Stop crying, you knuckleheads.

First, those “pastries” aren’t going to disappear. The union busting slobs who ran Hostess into the ground will sell the brands and their recipes off, ensuring their financial futures in ways their now-out of work employees can never imagine.

You’re Crying Over This?

Second, Twinkies, Ho Hos, and Dingdongs suck. You can argue all you want but if you think they’re good or tasty, you have the palate of a stray dog.

You know how dogs dig through Dumpsters looking for anything at all to eat? That’s you. Only you’ve actually spent your good, hard-earned cash on the garbage that Hostess has had the effrontery to call food.

Look, I’m a chocolate lover. What passes for chocolate on Ho Hos and Ding Dongs has more in common with long-chain polymers than the product of cocoa beans that was invented by perhaps the greatest human in the history of the world.

For chrissakes, the “chocolate” coating on Ho Hos and Dingdongs is crackly and shiny. That’s the same description for glossy latex paint or Bakelite. You’ve been eating it and enjoying it, you poor dopes!

So stop.

EEK!

You know how Helen Mirren has been the poster girl for hot women “of a certain age”?

She’s brought glamor and allure to the GILF (or even G-GILF) world.

A Certain Age

I haven’t exactly be doing handstands over her since she remade herself into a dowager sex symbol but I can see the attraction. Were I a randy, single young man and she crooked her finger at me, I’d very well drift her way.

Imagine, then, my discomfort upon seeing the online banner ad for her latest film, “Hitchcock,” in which she plays the great director’s wife, Alma.

By god! She looks almost precisely like Jack Lemmon as Daphne in “Some Like It Hot!”

There Goes That Fantasy

Yeesh. I do believe whatever fantasies I may have entertained about Helen Mirren have just vanished.

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