Not So Amusing

Every now and then, a friend or colleague will reference a television commercial that is apparently all the rage, the thing that everyone is talking about. Karen and I generally remain (blissfully) in the dark about these, because we cut the cord years ago. The rare exception are adds that will appear on Hulu, and when I do see commercials, sometimes on a television in a waiting room or something similar, I generally just shake my head. Commercials generally are intended to leave one believing that if you buy that given product, your life will suddenly be fulfilled in some previously unrealized way.

Marketing, I will always believe, is a symptom of a great deal of what is cancerous in our consumerist Western culture.

Last week, Karen and I were watching a favorite program on Hulu, and we saw two such commercials. I think…I think…that they’re intended to be cute, amusing, and genuinely fun. And if you don’t think about them as you’re watching them, I imagine that they are just that. In the interest of actually thinking about what we’re seeing, though (you know, since that’s always a good idea), let’s look at Disney’s beckoning to bring us into their park for good family fun:

In what world would a grandparent have such poor self control as to upstage their grandchild? In what world would they even want to do such a thing? I’ve met a lot of grandparents in my life. I have a lot of friends that are grandparents. None of them would even dream of such a thing, because it isn’t funny, or cute, or amusing. It’s trampling your (grand)child’s self-esteem. And, incidentally, no child that I know would laugh at this either, to say nothing of the parents in the audience.

Or, perhaps even more depressing, this is apparently supposed to convince us to buy flavored coffee:

Except that’s it’s using a stereotype of vacuous women to do so, making the women in the commercial appear weak and flighty. Even worse, it’s making literary-minded women…and those interested in literature in general…to appear silly. Like we need less interest in literature in the U.S. today. Advertising as a discipline (if it can be called that) doesn’t care about whether or not it’s reinforcing a depressing cultural trend, though…it only cares that it can use it to sell a product.

Encouraging poor behavior, capitalizing on downward trends…what’s sad is that commercials like this (and there are others that are even more reprehensible…at least these two made some effort to disguise their manipulation with cleverness) do sell products. We let them. We mindlessly sit in front of a TV and soak them in, unthinking, without analyzing, permitting ourselves to be voluntarily reduced to the lowest common denominator.

The creators of these, and many other ads, should feel ashamed.

As should we.

The Proof of Bad Writing

Pilot [HD]Just a couple of quick thoughts, delayed by Blogger’s recent outage. 

We were watching Bones last night. I think the writers may actually be pulling that show back from the train-wreck that they permitted it to become. After we finished the most recent episode, Hulu sort of automatically plays episodes of similar programs. This time it chose to play Body of Proof, which is essentially a cheap attempt to copy Bones. Apparently, television networks simply copy the success of others if they can’t come up with anything original (read: most of the time). I don’t recommend Body of Proof: it’s written poorly, the characters are stereotyped, and the directing…well, the directing…

I looked up from reading whatever it was I was reading in the middle of the show, because it had digressed into background noise for me. The scene that was taking place when I looked up involved the protagonist talking to a child in a living room. Her partner enters the scene behind her, standing next to the front door of the home, and tells the protagonist that they have to leave. She acknowledges her partner, says goodbye to the child, and then exits the scene…off to the viewer’s left, leaving her partner standing beside the front door behind her. The show promptly cut to the next scene.


That sparked some conversation in our living room. I feel bad for the actors. I feel bad for them because I can’t tell how good they are, and, if I never see them cast in anything else, I’ll never know, and always have a bad impression of them. I’ve worked in a lot of live performances in my life, and, although most of that time has not been on stage, I’ve learned some important things. An actor can be incredibly gifted, but if they’re working under poor direction…and especially if they’re working under poor direction of a poor script…they’re going to look like they don’t know what they’re doing.

There are other examples, though, of actors that have saved projects with just a little extra help. I’ll use The Happening as an example. The Happening is the only screenplay I’ve seen from Shyamalan that wasn’t outstanding…all of his other films have been superb. The Happening was, however, well directed, and gave the actors, especially Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg, an opportunity to work with the screenplay in a way that breathed some sort of life into it.  Deschanel, in particular, literally transformed some of the scenes with facial expressions alone. The film wouldn’t have survived without their excellent performances, and the direction that permitted them to develop those performances.

My issue with Body of Proof is that it has neither. The direction is poor, and the writing is forced, contrived, and even melodramatic at times. The actors, as a result, appear clueless. Here’s to hoping I manage to see these actors in something else sometime…I’d love to see what their abilities truly are.

A Second Viewing of the Third Watch

Third Watch: The Complete Second SeasonSometimes, its amazing what you see when you look at something the second time.

Or watch something the second time, as the case may be. Several years ago, a television series called Third Watch grabbed my attention. In case you’ve never become familiar with the series, it was a drama based on the lives of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs working the third watch (the evening shift) in New York City. This was really good television, capturing what first responders deal with  each day, and how it impacts their personal lives. The show appeared before September 11th…that is, it aired from 1999, before programs about first responders were as fashionable. It continued through, and long after, September 11th, going on to win a Peabody Award, among other critical acclaim.

I think that I was attracted to the show because I briefly entertained the idea that I wanted to work in law enforcement when I finished college (go ahead…laugh). While law enforcement has rightfully held its place as an interest and not a career choice for me, I’ve always had a soft spot for police dramas. They’re sort of a guilty pleasure. I recognized Third Watch, from when I first enjoyed the series until it tragically ended while I was in grad school in 2005, as great drama, and well acted.

I was either too busy to see the depth of the writing, or else my rhetorical skills just weren’t developed well for television viewing, in the show’s early years. I recently re-discovered the show through Netflix, and began watching season 2 again. There’s some fascinating writing at play, here.

The over-arching theme of the program, at least in its beginning, was everyone’s need for a hero. From the opening credit music (a techno piece called “Keep Hope Alive” by The Crystal Method), the viewer is set up to realize his/her need for a hero, for someone to come to their rescue when the worst occurs. We are then introduced to the real-life heroes of the first responders, those who risk their own safety to help those they don’t know. The heroism is depicted is well-shot, edge-of-your-seat action sequences that come from nowhere and end just as abruptly…just as though we were experiencing them in real life. The first responders sweep in and save the day, and we see their camaraderie develop as they have to deal with what they’ve experienced. We see this camaraderie grow even more when they don’t manage to save the day, despite their best efforts.

Season 2, however, opens with a series of episodes dedicated to specific characters. In these episodes, we are walked through how each character’s personal struggles and flaws have a reciprocal effect on how they do their jobs, and what their jobs do to them. We see a paramedic who gets into trouble because he can’t reconcile an ideal with the reality of racism he sees (and sometimes imposes over reality) around him. We see a police officer who can’t make ends meet financially, and lies to her husband and her partner to cover an abortion because of her fear that she can’t afford another child. We see a police officer haunted by his deceased father’s infidelity, and a paramedic who stands precariously on the edge of instability in her longing to put her failed marriage back together.

These episodes are interesting, because they present the heroes as not only very human, but sometimes very questionable in their motivations. Later in season 2, in an episode called “Know Thyself,” one of the police officers tells another, “Sometimes the things that make you a good cop make you a bad person.” The heroes we turn to in our time of need, those who we rely on to make us safe, are unable to be heroes out of any sort of pure benevolence. Even when they are close to the ideal, their own lives are crumbling when they are not “in costume,” as it were, as heroes. Thus, Third Watch assumes a theme similar in many ways to The Watchmen, in that we are presented with a sort of anti-hero; each doing their best, but hopelessly tainted by the very evil they fight.

The episodes dealing with individual characters’ struggles move into a gripping episode early in season 2 called “After Hours.” In the beginning of the episode, the characters have arrived on the scene of a fiery car accident, seconds too late to prevent the vehicle from exploding and all of its occupants dying. Despite their hidden grief, life moves on, and the shift ends. After the shift, groups of them (characters we haven’t previously seen spend time together outside of work) go out, some for coffee and some for alcohol, in an effort to cope with what they have seen. One gets hopelessly intoxicated, one tries to sleep with another, one drives recklessly through the streets in his muscle car, returning to the scene of the accident. All of them encounter teenagers in their outings. The teenagers help them in some cases, and in other cases they lead them into situations that they are able to affect positively (two of the off-duty police officers are able to intervene in a mugging while walking a girl unsuccessful in catching a bus home through the park). One officer, who is about to resign after what he has seen tonight, walks a teenager home, and encounters a man he saved from committing suicide who thanks him and tells him that he has a successful life now. Others see redeeming things about themselves. All end up back at the scene of the accident, and go to watch the sun rise on the beach, standing by each other in their time of need. Ultimately, through flashback, the viewer realizes that the teenagers that the characters have encountered are the ghosts of the people who died in the car accident earlier that night…four high school students driving intoxicated to their homecoming.

After seeing the characters presented as hopelessly flawed human beings who are attempting to somehow be heroes to others, the viewer is now presented with an image of grace for their flaws…just as they fail in their heroism, even as the characters struggle to forgive themselves (two of them insist to each other, “We got there as fast as we could.”).  The ghosts of those they couldn’t save come back, as though to recognize that the characters did their best, and help them to recognize why they do what they do, even leading them to further acts of heroism. The episode closes with a song called “Give Me Strength” by Over the Rhine, asking for “strength to find the road that’s lost in me,” and “time to heal and build myself a dream.” The lyrics seem to embody both the voices of those saved by the heroes, and the cries of the heroes themselves.

Third Watch presents a idealistic image of a hero…almost of a super hero…in modern society: those who risk literally everything to routinely go out in search of evil, and attempt to protect its potential victims. In doing so, they lose themselves, unable to live a full life because of the sacrifices they make for others, and often unable to even protect themselves from the very evil they battle.  

What’s so fascinating about Third Watch is its gritty exploration of the spiritual truth that we all find ourselves in need of a hero, and we all take that hero for granted. We also see than no human being is capable of the superhuman heroism that we will all long for at some point in our lives…that we are looking for a hero who is more than human. Third Watch brings the best of super-hero fiction and places it in the context of the daily lives of first responders.

There’s so much more to this series than I saw the first time through.

Television Worth Watching…For A Change…

Parenthood: Season 1I don’t watch much television. I’d rather read a book or have an intelligent conversation, because I find most television to be vacuous and without redeeming value. There are, however, a small handful of programs that I keep in the Hulu cue, and that I make certain I watch every week.  I’m hesitant to add new ones, because I don’t like to spend a great deal of time watching video. One hour a night (not including random YouTube subscriptions or streaming news coverage), perhaps a movie or two on weekends, is my self-imposed limit that I break infrequently. I just don’t go looking for the next cool show.

Karen watches a lot more than I do. Occasionally, she’ll recommend a program to me, and often I’ll enjoy it, but not enough to keep up with it on a regular basis. She keeps up with several programs that I’ll watch if I’m bored…but I have to be pretty bored.

Every now and then, I find one that takes me by surprise. Even more rarely, I find one that I thought I wouldn’t care for at all, and end up amazed at it’s quality.

And, let’s face it: any time you find quality in prime-time programming, you should be amazed.

The most recent incident of this is a show called Parenthood. At first blush, I really expected this show to be a soap opera. Most true-to-life family dramas, after all, are rarely true to life. The writing tends to be horrible, the characters flat, and the melodrama overwhelming.

Parenthood is exactly the opposite of all of those things. The plots are believable. The characters are deep, engaging, and thoroughly and progressively developed with each episode. The writing is just good: simple and solid, with dialogue that carries its own weight every time. I’m drawn into the story arcs, and I run a gambit of emotions alongside the characters.  What I love most is that there is no moralizing in the characters’ crises. The events speak for themselves, and you’re left realizing that there are no easy answers, just like the life that we experience every day. This isn’t so much a show that you escape with, as a show that you learn from, a show that gives you insight into situations so real that you’ll likely find yourself dealing with some of them sooner rather than later.

Essentially, Parenthood does exactly what good art should do.

I’m the last person to tell you to add something else to watch to your busy life, but I have to recommend this program. If you haven’t already, check out a season. Unlike most television, I can honestly say you’ll be better off for watching.

Random Television Talk

I grew up with PBS. My best friend who lived just down the street did, as well. I don’t recall if we were already mutually hooked on the original Dr. Who series when we met, or if he was the one who first introduced me to the show. I only remember that it became a Saturday night ritual for my family. There were several BBC shows that we received through PBS, but Dr. Who was by far my favorite, and to this day I can recall many plots and episodes and companions, and could tell you my favorite incarnation of the Doctor. I was always a science fiction fan, getting it honestly from my mother the Trekkie, and Dr. Who was among the most original sci-fi I have experienced to this day (I even remember going to a convention in middle school, and wearing question mark lapel pins).

In my bachelor days of yesteryear, I remember when the Sci-Fi Channel began running BBC’s revival of Dr. Who, somewhere around my second year of grad school, and I tuned in with much anticipation and interest to the new series. Of course, Karen and I long ago gave up the dinosaur of cable television, but we always have the boxed set of the latest Dr. Who series interspersed in our Netflix cue as soon as it is available (we usually get it a season behind in America).

Dr. Who isn’t alone in our British favorites. Karen enjoys many of their murder mysteries, and my most recent interest is MI-5. Even in my news consumption periods, I gravitate toward BBC’s Word Service, because their coverage of world events is just so superior to America’s.

Which brings me to my point: why is British television programming so superior to American programming?

Don’t get me wrong, there are excellent American programs. They just seem to be difficult to sort out of all the fluff. The House and Bones quality of programs exist, but they are of a much different nature than the character development and theatrical presentation of British programming. American science fiction plot lines, with the exception of the occasional Firefly or Sanctuary or similar glimpse into true originality and excellent writing, are almost always less imaginative. I think it is because screen acting from the UK seems to have the feeling of having originated on the stage. My personal bias is always toward live theatre instead of film; I think acting for the stage brings with it an organic beauty that just isn’t duplicated in Hollywood. Of course, 90% of Hollywood’s offerings are low-quality garbage, but…still. Could it be that by taking acting off the stage and placing it on the screen in the manner in which Hollywood and the major television networks have, we’ve taken some of the ingenuity out of the art? Is that why our friends across the pond produce such better quality programs than we do?

Karen is a film lover, and would argue my bias toward stage acting. She feels that shooting out of sequence, facial close-ups, etc., makes acting for film much more difficult, and thinks I don’t give it the respect it deserves. I think it is more than just the difference in acting method, though. I enjoy what British programming leaves to the imagination. Even in our age of special effects geniuses, programs such as Dr. Who leave a great deal for our imaginations to fill in, instead of letting the effects artists tell us what it looks like through post-production. Similar to the stage, the hint of what is present beyond what our eyes see is there, and our imaginations fill in the rest. Certainly, in our video-game saturated, mathematics deifying, and largely illiterate age, imagination is a thing that receives far too little emphasis…or exercise.

I like letting my imagination work. I like filling in the blanks myself, as opposed to having everything painted out for me. I prefer to do some of the work, to participate with the story as it unfolds. Because, if we’re not doing some of the work…if we’re not engaging the story actively as we experience it…then we’re just being entertained into a vegetative state, lulled into a stupor by one more soap opera.

For the sake of my brain cells, and my imagination, I’d just as soon avoid that.