Because I watch so little television, I tend to become a bit attached to the programs that I do frequent. I’m picky about what I choose to watch on a regular basis, because it is receiving a valuable block of time out of my week. I’m perhaps a bit overly picky, and I do “test drive” new programs on a somewhat regular basis, mostly at Karen’s recommendation. Rarely, though, do any of them make the cut and become something that I’m willing to watch weekly. Some of the ones that do, though, have surprised some of my friends.

A long, long time ago, I wrote about two of my favorites: House, and Bones. The reasons that I found these series irresistible back then held largely true until only a season or two ago (yes, they’ve both been around that long). Interestingly, though, the writers of these programs have taken different approaches over the last two years, to varying results.

This week, I watched the series finale of House. My reaction was that the whole thing was tragic, and I don’t mean because of the characters. I mean this because of inconsistent plot, a script written for sentimentality and shock value, and, basically, because this was a pathetic way to end a series that should have ended two seasons ago.  That, you see, is when I stopped watching House. The season which began with him in prison quickly lost me, because the writers were obviously trying to get bigger and more epic with their story ideas, which lost the character development that had made the show so excellent to the winds of exaggerated ideas. Incidentally, I stopped reading most Marvel comics for a very similar reason within the last year.

Bones started to do the same unfortunate spiral when Booth went back to war and the team disbanded, only to get back together quickly at the beginning of the following season, and reveal implausible backstory out of the blue. I had given up hope for Bones, as well, and saw maybe two episodes of that season. Karen, however, stayed with it, and I think that it has began to show improvement this season. In fact, the season finale that I watched tonight left me with my emotional jaw hanging (although I did see it coming), in a way that House used to do but hadn’t in a couple of years.

I’m glad that Bones appears to be in the process of being salvaged by its writers, and I’ll definitely tune in next season to see what happens next. I’m sad that House died a slow and impotent death that was two years overdue.

I’m also sad about a nifty little spinoff program from Bones, the Finder, which started slowly but had a good thing going for it in the end, only to (as I understand it) not be renewed for a second season. I suppose, though, that the huge majority of television viewers aren’t picky about the white noise that fills their evenings, and tend to gravitate toward more action, sex, and crude jokes, leaving series with some depth in plot, humor, and character development cast aside at the whim of the lowest common denominator.

I suppose that sounds sort of elitist. Oh, well. I like quality when I see it. I won’t miss what House had become, but I will miss what the Finder was only beginning to become, while looking forward to the resurrection of Bones.

And there you have my wrap-up of recent season finales.

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Knowing the Audience

Late last week, Karen and I encountered one of those moments of classic Americana in which you’ve just finished cooking dinner, bypassed the dining room table and carried your plates directly to the sofa, and attempted to decide what to watch while you eat. The Hulu cue was empty, and the Netflix cue was only populated with feature-length movies, which was more than we were really looking for (this makes us sound so ridiculously…I don’t know, insert your adjective here…but roll with it for a second, because I’m actually leading up to something interesting).

In the interest of something at which to laugh and pass the time, we landed on an old sitcom that we both used to enjoy in our previous lives before we met, and had a blast commenting on it through a good part of the first season that evening. In the process, I heard something that I hadn’t heard for a while:

“…filmed in front of a live studio audience.”

I had a moment of reminiscing, because I remember hearing that phrase frequently when I was younger and used to watch sitcoms with my parents. I commented to Karen that I missed that time when programs were filmed in front of a live studio audience, but she commented that she was under the impression that they frequently were still. As though to confirm her point, I overheard the opening credits of another random sitcom that she watched this morning, to discover that it was also filmed in front of a live studio audience. I’m not overly interested in the particular sitcom she was watching, but I was very glad to discover that these sorts of programs still enjoy the truer level of performance that an audience in the same room brings.

Of course, I’m partial to theatre because that’s where my background lies. That said, though, wouldn’t you agree that there’s something more alive about a performance in front of a live audience than the performance you watch from the comfort of your living room, or even in a movie theatre? The reason for this extra dose of magic is that there’s a feedback loop that takes place in interpersonal communication. That is, the performer sends a message that is received by the audience, which then sends feedback (like applause), which then has an effect on the performers. That’s why no live performance is ever the same twice. Every time I’ve directed a play, each performance is different, because the audience laughs and applauds at different moments, which in turn inspires the actors in different places in the script, which causes them to perform their roles just a bit differently each time.

So, while I don’t do sitcoms that often, I think there’s just something more electric, more alive about the performances that occur in front of an audience. Of course, I enjoy a movie in a big theatre as much as anyone else, but I would much rather attend a play if given the option. Sort of like listening to the recording is different than seeing the band live.

Would you rather see the performance live? Or is the screen enough for you?

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A Review of “The Leftovers”

The LeftoversThe Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Leftovers was an unknown book to me until a friend mentioned over coffee one evening this confusing book that had been loaned to him by one of his friends. He mentioned it a couple of times over the next few weeks, and consistently referenced that, while it was an easy read, he just couldn’t figure out what it was that the author was up to. Because of my background, though, he had sought his friend’s permission to loan the book to me in turn when he finished, because he was interested in my opinion.

The premise of the Leftovers is this: a Rapture-like event called the Great Departure has occurred, and the story picks up with those who have been (pardon the cliche) left behind. Except this event didn’t mesh with the Rapture of Christian theology, because people of all faiths are missing, just as many Christians are left behind. Obviously, the world toys with falling apart, and many individuals do just that. Perrotta centers his story on the citizens of one mid-western U.S. town, Mapleton, and how they survive and move forward.

Many religious cults begin to manifest in this future world that Perrotta spins, and all of them seem to emerge from a similar motivation: they are all attempting to correct whatever it was that had been missed in the first place. There’s the Guilty Remnant, a fascinating idea for a group of characters, consisting of white-clad watchers that smoke cigarettes and mutely stare at you to remind you that you shouldn’t be moving on with life or forgetting what they feel God has done. There’s the more humorous Holy Wayne, who marries a few teenage girls and manages to get one pregnant with what he predicts will be the miracle child that will save the world. And, there’s the more down to earth pastor whom, unbelieving that he has devoted his whole life to God and yet been deserted, begins to self-publish a newsletter exposing all the sins of the people who vanished, as though to find an outlet for his bitterness.

The Leftovers isn’t a heavy read at all, but each evening I picked it up was a struggle. I hefted the book from the coffee table and generally grumbled about how unfair life was and why I should have my head examined for pushing through this thing. In fact, I have difficulty remembering the last time I struggled so much to simply finish a book. This is in contrast, however, to the last twenty pages, which I suddenly found nearly impossible to put down. So, to say that the pacing felt a bit odd to me would be an understatement.

One of the reviews on the book jacket describes Perrotta as the “Steinbeck of Suburbia,” and I’ll draw this comparison to Steinbeck’s work immediately: this novel is supremely depressing (and this coming from someone who enjoys dystopian concepts). What Perrotta does masterfully is weave thoroughly developed characters who are working, some successfully and some not, through the grief process. I found myself heartbroken for some of them, and the touching descriptions of their most intimate struggles and attempts to cope were perhaps what made the book difficult to take in longer sittings.

The friend who loaned this book to me? He told me that his friend had told him that, for him, the entire novel came down to the last sentence. He urged me to resist the urge to look forward, and to wait for it to arrive. So I did. My friend also told me that, if that last sentence is really what the novel is working toward, then it didn’t have much. I’ll just say that it fell hopelessly flat.

And that, ultimately, is my description of much the book: hopelessly flat. That has a great deal to do with the fact that the reader finishes with absolutely no clue what Perrotta is trying to accomplish here. I’ve heard others say that he doesn’t have an axe to grind, but I’m not so convinced. I would have walked away from the book much more fulfilled had I simply been able to get some glimpse of what axe it was, but Perrotta, perhaps intentionally, leaves it obscured. What seems most likely to me is a treatment of the shortfalls of organized religion, but even this reading runs into difficulties soon enough. I finished this book emotionally wrung out, but more bemused than I have been by a work of literary fiction in some time.

Perhaps I’m looking too deeply, and Perrotta is simply painting a picture of working through the grief of sudden and enormous loss, and how some always find ways to hope and move forward, while some become twisted and forever fractured, all againt an imaginative premise as a backdrop. If this is the case, then he certainly writes his characters beautifully, but to a shallow end. If this is what Perrotta wanted to accomplish, then he certainly did so, but I found it wanting. I have difficulty recommending this book to anyone.

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Copy Wrong

This copyright issue is getting out of hand.

All of these legal technicalities either exist, or are being formulated, to prevent you from doing things with books, movies, or music that would be natural and completely legal otherwise, and the only conceivable reason is that the producers, publishers, and record labels are scared to death that they’re going to lose part of their already-ridiculous wealth.

I get the idea of copyright, don’t misunderstand. I copyright everything that I write before submitting it for publication. I don’t want someone to steal my so-called intellectual property in the sense that I don’t want it being taken and twisted into something that I never intended the story or the character to be. That said, though, I also recognize that whatever I create…and whatever any artist creates…is there for the greater good, and I want as many people as possible to be able to read what I write. So, when publishers do things like limit libraries’ access to their books, it really frustrates me.

I’m finishing a book tonight that was loaned to me by a friend. The book isn’t his, though…it was loaned to him by one of his friends, and he loaned it to me with that friend’s permission. I’m sure that publishers would make this illegal if they could…somehow implant some sort of tracking chip in it that would bring a secret copyright infringement police kicking in my door in order to prevent what they would see as a $15 theft. That’s the same logic, after all, that launched the concept of DRM, which has at least been stripped from most music, but is pervasive in ebooks, especially at the hands of Amazon.

And so it remains questionable whether or not it is okay to make a copy of a DVD that you legally purchased to watch on your iPad. Even though you legally purchased it. Even though you’re not sharing it with others. The MPAA prefers that you pay, pay, pay for the privilege of doing anything with their material.

Here’s the thing: most people that I know, even those who wouldn’t classify themselves as creatives, prefer to pay for what they read, watch, and listen to. I am one of those people, as well, because I recognize the pain, sweat, and tears that goes into any form of creative expression. The artist deserves to be paid, and I would never steal their work. Loaning their work to another person to read, however, is the highest compliment to be paid to a writer, not stealing. Nor is owning that book, or movie, or recording in such a way that allows you to read, watch, or listen to it in whatever medium you choose.

An artist’s creation should be properly attributed, paid for, and respected. I would never advocate stealing. What the so-called entertainment industry considers “stealing,” however, is becoming more and more expansive, in very troubling ways.

Are we facing a dystopian future in which books aren’t permitted to be owned at all, only rented? Movies only streamed, not purchased? The artists don’t want that. I find it wholly disrespectful to the artists…and to the pubic at large…that the executives do.

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The Speed of Diminished Returns

I do my best to avoid routines on principle. In the mornings, though, I’m forced to adhere to a routine. Two of us, after all, are trying to get three of us out the door and to our various obligations, and my slowness in waking up and becoming functional at any point before noon requires not only a significant amount of coffee, but also a morning ritual. Otherwise, it’s almost certain that I’ll show up at my first appointment of the day with teeth unbrushed or, worse, living one of those nightmares in which you’re meeting someone important and have forgotten your pants.

Don’t laugh. If you’ve ever seen me in the mornings, you know it could happen.

The problem is that, as much as the morning routine facilitates speed, it also leads to a corresponding increase in potential for error. Fortunately, Karen and I check behind each other on important things, such as whether or not our daughter’s bottle is packed in her diaper bag, permitting me time for an extra glance in the mirror to make certain I’ve shaved and am wearing pants. When I’m doing it on my own, however, as different schedules sometimes necessitate, I’m forever leaving home without something that needed to be put into the mail, or without my coffee cup (trigger alarm bells), or the book I’m returning to the friend I’m meeting for coffee that afternoon…you get the idea. The faster I’m moving, the less likely I am to remember everything. In fact, the faster I’m moving in the morning, the less likely I am to take be careful about the quality of things like my appearance. Last weekend, for example, I had a commitment for sound mixing that involved me showing up for sound checks before 6:00 a.m. I threw on clothes, didn’t deal with contact lenses, barely took time to shave…I didn’t have time to take care of my appearance as I normally would. Everything sounded good, but I looked rough.

Last week, I read this review in the New Yorker of an important book discussing, among other things,  descriptivist vs. prescriptivist language. The review is worth your while to read, as it treats the decline of the English language in the Western world very lucidly. One of the (many) valuable points that it makes is that the increasing speed at which our culture moves negatively impacts the care we take with our language.

I think that a much larger amount of our problems than we might initially think result from the fact that we do not take time…take care…with our language. Just as I don’t take as much care of my appearance when I’m in a hurry, neither do I choose my words as carefully…or as lovingly…when I’m frustrated, or stressed, or multi-tasking. As most of us are nearly always in a hurry, our words are seldom chosen with care. The result is that the power of our language to do harm is tossed about with casual disregard.

Of course, war also degrades language. As we’ve been in a state of war for a decade, now, it’s easy to understand how our vocabulary spirals downhill, and how the technical, quantifiable quasi-languages of mathematics and programming supersede the English language because they (in my opinion) require less effort. Early in my undergrad days, a communications professor mentioned a concept that has resonated with me ever since: civilizations advance or decline based upon their ability to talk about their problems. As war has a dumbing-down effect on culture, certainly our language is dumbed down with it, and thus we can no longer communicate effectively.

Poet Sarah Kay says that she abstains from Twitter because the speed of the medium does not permit her to take care with her word choice and with the language. For all of us, as a culture, to fall in love with our language again would involve slowing down. That’s what makes me fear that it won’t happen, because I encounter limited interest in slowing down. I’m afraid that this will continue to lead not to the forward momentum of our language, but to the de-evolution of our language that we are already witnessing.  When we can no longer communicate with each other in an expansive and encompassing manner, and are limited to a narrow manner that limits us in scope as to what we can express, then I am left deeply concerned about the destination to which we rush so hurriedly.

“Going nowhere fast,” after all, is invariably successful in reaching the destination.

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