Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is cable TV committing suicide?

Once upon a time, some cable TV networks had moderately interesting programming. Remember those days? These days, it seems like all of the specialty channels are charging over a cliff as fast as they can manage. Here's just a few of the channels I used to watch and now just skip over:

History Channel: Featuring an endless diet of 2012, Nostradamus, and other superstitious nonsense, it's only a matter of time before they rename it the Hysteria Channel. People used to mock them as The Hitler Channel for their constant diet of WWII footage. It turns out that, thanks to the new management, that was actually the editorial high-water mark for the channel.

SyFy: It used to be called SciFi. And it used to have things worth watching, as opposed to a stable of in-house actors rotating through the same formulaic "monster/alien/robot threatens earth" cheapie.

HGTV: Some of the home/yard improvement shows are still worthwhile. Not so much: room makeovers slapped together under arbitrary time constraints ("we'll transform this kitchen in just 2 days!") imposed purely to inject some fake tension into the proceedings. When I watch a "carpenter" build an entertainment center in an hour by end-nailing a few boards of MDF and rolling on a coat of paint, I have a pretty good sense of how crappy that thing will look about six weeks after the cameras have left. It's going to make your student dorm IKEA bookshelf look like an heirloom. The only good thing to say about HGTV these days is that at least the housing market crash put an end to those stupid get-rich-quick property flipping shows. It's also pretty amusing to watch those "we'll stage this house and get it sold!" shows where at the end the voiceover admits "It's been six weeks since the open house and we've had lots of traffic. Our sellers are just waiting for that perfect offer" (read: all that work, still no buyer.)

Food Network: Anthony Bourdain already said most of what needed to be said about Food Network's decline into the celebration of mediocrity so I just need to add: what is the deal with all the competitions? Whether people are racing against the clock or competing against each other, like HGTV the artificial deadlines are imposed purely to create the illusion of drama. Food doesn't need that. Food is not theater.

Maybe we're coming to the end of an era, and single-subject channels are dying as a species. Meanwhile, the broadcast networks have become a wasteland of so-called "reality" programming interleaved with CSI knock-offs and Law & Order spin-offs. The only broadcast show I regret missing is the brilliant (in every sense) and under-appreciated "Better Off Ted".

So what does that leave? Well, for me it's basically USA Network: White Collar, Burn Notice, and re-runs of NCIS. Not exactly brain food, but still better than what's on elsewhere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do over?

This is the kind of thought that occurs to you when you realize that you have hit the midpoint of a reasonable expectation of your life span (or the 2/3rds point if family history is any guide...).

If you could have your life to date over again (without any foreknowledge once you start over, of course) or you could have the remainder of your life, whatever that might turn out to be, which would you choose? Certainty or uncertainty?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The culture of inconsequence

I'm not a video game player myself (because I suck, not out of some misplaced snobbery) but I am astonished at the time, effort, and concerted study people put into mastering games. The combination of fast reactions, physical dexterity, and mental acuity demanded by the best games is really quite impressive.

And it struck me, what would happen if the people who devote so much effort to games were to redirect themselves to something less virtual and more, well, consequential? What if everybody who has mastered Gears of War instead, say, mastered a musical instrument?

And games are not the only difficult, demanding, challenging yet ultimately pointless activity with which we fill our time. Why do people choose to learn Klingon when for the same effort they could learn Spanish? Why do they memorize the fictional history and participants of the Clone Wars rather than the Hundred Years' War?

This willingness to work hard to acquire fictional skills and knowledge seems to me to be a quite different phenomenon than our willingness to passively absorb celebrity culture and "reality" TV. People actually devote real effort and study to memorizing the history of Middle Earth. It's not easy to catalog the continuity of sentient species across the Star Trek franchise, or to reconcile the continuity conflicts between Star Wars media, even though in the end none of this matters in any way at all and could be -- indeed, often is -- swept away at the whim of the next movie's director.

My suspicion is that we prefer these fictional bodies of knowledge for two reasons. One, they are finite. A game can be won; the history of the Federation can be definitively cataloged; everything that can conceivably be known about Middle Earth is written down in a handful of books. These universes are, unlike the messy, blurry, shifty, vague, real world, comfortingly definite. And two, nothing that happens in them has any lasting effect: unlike the real world, which sorely lacks an Undo command or a Rewind button, at the end of a game, you can always hit the reset button.

It seems that we've become people who prefer to lead lives without consequences.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Years Resolutions (again)

My resolution: to answer all questions using only answers from the Magic 8 Ball:

● As I see it, yes
● It is certain
● It is decidedly so
● Most likely
● Outlook good
● Signs point to yes
● Without a doubt
● Yes
● Yes - definitely
● You may rely on it
● Reply hazy, try again
● Ask again later
● Better not tell you now
● Cannot predict now
● Concentrate and ask again
● Don't count on it
● My reply is no
● My sources say no
● Outlook not so good
● Very doubtful

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for the new decade

Here are my resolutions for the next decade. I offer no attempt to explain these other than in their own words: poetry must either speak for itself, or not at all.

1. I will take the road less traveled (Frost, paraphrased)

2. O for ten years, that I may overwhelm/Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed/That my own soul has to itself decreed (Keats)

3. We must love one another and die. (Auden)