How Far Is Too Far?

In a recent campaign ad for governor of the state of Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp loads a shotgun and points it at a young man who (in the ad) is “interested in one of my daughters”. He then proceeds to grill “Jake” on why Mr. Kemp is running for governor and what qualities are essential in a young man who will be dating one of his daughters. Naturally, those would be “respect and a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.”

Where do I begin?

As someone who has often stated my support for the Second Amendment and the personal right to own firearms, as well as a satirist in my own right, the casual reader might expect me to fully support this ad. After all it’s just in good sport, right? A little poking fun, ribbing the liberals, maybe the casual allusion to the classic “Southern dad with a shotgun” motif? There’s at least a few things wrong with that.

The first thing is that it’s not “just in good sport”. There are a two rules in comedy that are getting violated here. The first, and one that is getting a lot of play these days, is that you punch up, not down. Who exactly is Mr. Kemp punching up at? Gun control advocates? Liberals? Jake? It’s not clear, but like many other politicians these days, he is in a position of power already, and he is using that position to take cheap shots (pun intended) at those who oppose him.

The second rule in comedy that is being violated is that the secret to good comedy is timing. As the editors of The Onion once pointed out, the closer a joke is to the tragedy it’s making fun of, the funnier it needs to be. If you’re going to riff on a tragedy the day after it happened, that better be the funniest joke I ever heard. Given the proximity to the Parkland shooting (along with any number of other teen shootings in America, which may not have gotten the same level of publicity but are just as heartfelt to the victims), I just don’t think this one makes the cut.

The second problem I have with this commercial is that it’s not about liberals versus conservatives, it’s about responsible gun use versus careless or outright unlawful gun use. The first rule of gun safety, always, is to treat every weapon as if it is live, loaded, and ready to fire. A logical extension of this rule that all responsible gun users follow is “don’t point a weapon at anything or anyone you don’t intend to shoot”. I don’t know if it’s because he’s trying to intimidate Jake into voting for him, scare him away from his daughters, or he just doesn’t like his actors, but none of those is a sufficient reason to point a gun at someone. Well okay, maybe because he’s an actor. (See? That’s comedy.)

Finally, the trope of the “Southern dad with a shotgun” is tired, played out, and insulting. Speaking as someone who has both been “threatened” by a father with a shotgun on multiple occasions as a teenager, as well as someone who has actually once been held at gunpoint for real, I can say with authority this shit needs to stop. You are sending one of two messages: either you are a homicidal lunatic who doesn’t understand how to participate in civilized society; or you prefer to use threats, bullying, and intimidation and don’t understand how to participate in civilized society. Neither is something that we should be modeling in the media as something to aspire toward, and certainly not something we should look for in our elected officials.


A Long, Strange Trip

My latest guilty pleasure has been watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys on Netflix. Yes, that Hercules. The one Xena: Warrior Princess is a spin-off from. What can I say? I’ve developed a taste for camp. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate the series when it first came out, although the pretentiousness I displayed in my twenties may have had something (everything) to do with that.

I’ve realized two things as I watch this series. First, they did a remarkably good job of staying true to the source material, considering that it was a pretty campy, not-for-primetime “filler” show that was the modern answer to Land of the Lost. The second thing I realized right after that is there was no way they could stay anywhere close to the source material and still get on network TV. Even HBO might have a problem with it. I mean think about it. You think Game of Thrones is hardcore? How many episodes of maidens getting raped by swans, bulls, and golden showers (insert your own joke here) do you think they’d get away with before they get the show pulled? And those were just some of Zeus’ hijinks.

Between all the rape, murder, and general awfulness of Greek mythology, it’s hard to remember that this is supposed to be some of the best culture in history. I’ve written before about how 90% of everything is crap, and that only the good stuff survives. So what does that say about us? What does that say about our forebears? It’s not like someone is still writing Greek mythology, although clearly we’re still reinterpreting it. But throughout history, when there was a horrible fire and only one book could be saved, this was the one. When scribes painstakingly copied crumbling scrolls by candlelight, this is what they copied.

It’s easy to say that we love these myths for their cultural value, and I’m more than familiar with the analysis of them as explanations of natural phenomenon, nor do I deny that side of them. But I also think there’s some element of Stephen King’s “feeding the alligators” going on here. Civilization is a thin veneer we pull over the savage, and sooner or later he’s going to want blood. Even in the cleaned up version there’s a fight in every episode, damsels in distress abound, betrayal is common, sex is not infrequent (although it’s the punch line of a joke as often as not), and people die. Let’s not forget that the series begins with Hercules’ family being killed by Hera (although directly this time, rather than indirectly through the tool of Hercules himself as in the original myth). And we want that. We want the gore, the horror, the betrayal and the sex and the cruelty of the gods and all the rest (“Red Wedding” anyone?). I’m not sure what that says about us, except perhaps the more things change…

If you want some good, campy fun that is remarkably witty and has held up surprisingly well over the years, I highly recommend Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. If you want “Oh, dear God, don’t do that, she’s your mother!” I highly recommend the original myths the series is based on.


Memory as Identity

As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:


Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?

Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.

So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?

Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?

A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?

I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.

How Episodic Television Shows Are Killing Their Own Business

I watch Netflix about as much these days as I do regular TV, and here’s why: when I can actually get the service to work (thank you Verizon), I can watch entire seasons of shows at once, without having to wait a week at a time, without having to sit through reruns, without having to “choose” between two shows in the same time slot (like I really watch either of them when they come on anyway, it’s called DVR folks), but most of all because I don’t have to sit through commercials.

Unfortunately, I usually have to wait a few years for a single season of a show to hit Netflix, assuming it ever does. I assume this is because they want to make sure to get their money from the first run, the reruns, the syndication, the DVD sales, the syndicated DVD sales, the reruns of the syndicated DVD sales, and whatever all else they do. It’s not until they have a given season running on at least three basic cable channels (or they’ve been passed up by five) that they “stoop” to leasing the rights to Netflix, and even then I’ve seen some shows yank the rights back (I got about five episodes into Babylon 5 before they did this to me).

Why? What do they really think they’re getting out of this? Is there some rabid ocelot in a back room that flails around on a Twister board and they interpret these signals as decisions? Here’s a little clue for you, Oh Great And Powerful Television Executives: the people who bother to watch syndicated television are not the same people who watch Netflix or similar streaming services. Not even close. There may have been, once upon a time, a cross-over audience between those who bought entire seasons of TV shows on DVD and the streaming audience, but that’s a dying trend, too. Only the truly rabid fan base is going to care that much and they will still be there for you (probably wearing a handmade costume piece from their favorite character that you sent a cease and desist order about).

As I see it, there are three primary audiences “second run” television should be aiming for. The first is the hardcore audience, the folks who love a show enough to want everything about it. These folks will buy the entire season on DVD/Blu-Ray, especially if it comes with extras like cast interviews and commentary. The next audience would be the “catch-up” audience. This is what I envision as the folks who only heard about the show from friends well after the season (or the show itself) started and don’t want to jump in halfway through. They want to binge, catch-up to the current storyline, and watch all the first run episodes from there. These are the folks who will watch all the back episodes on a streaming service (small revenue source) and then become more eyeballs for the new episodes, you know, the ones with the most expensive commercials (big revenue source). Finally there’s the casual viewers who like the show well enough to leave it on but don’t consider it “must see” television. This is where you get your syndicated television dollars.

In an ideal world, I envision the lifecycle of a show would be this:

  • First run, including all reruns in primetime slot. Season ends.
  • As soon as season ends, entire season is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. DVD/Blu-Ray includes bonus features.
  • Over off-season, previous season reruns in primetime slot.
  • After new season starts, last season enters syndication immediately.

The benefit of this system for the viewers is obvious. The benefit for the studios is a little more subtle, but what it means in the long run is less pirating and more eyeballs for first-run content. When people don’t have to feel 2-5 years behind the storyline (unless they feel like coughing up a couple hundred bucks for a show they might or might not like), they’re more likely to get invested. And more invested fans means a higher percentage of rabid fans, which means more DVD sales. The syndicated episodes aren’t going to be hurt any, because the folks who weren’t willing to pay for streaming services are still going to be there, and the ones who did? You grew your audience for those episodes.

The fact that Netflix and Hulu are coming up with their own original programming is just going to hurt these guys even more. Now there are even fewer reasons to be attached to networks and their ridiculous scheduling. I understand once upon a time the system was rigged in such a way that it was winner take all and pitting the best shows against each other meant you had the best chance of crushing the other guy and getting all the money, but here’s a thought: maybe people don’t watch TV that way anymore. Maybe (and this might even date back to the advent of the VCR) people expect to be able to watch ALL the shows they like, not just one or two. Having them all in the same time slots and on the same schedule just seems… well… dumb. But if you have to continue playing that game, at least give yourselves the best chance at a second chance, and stop holding back last year’s episodes until nobody cares anymore.

How Verizon Is Killing Their Own Business

So I finally saw the finale of “The Voice” the other day, and I’d like to start by saying congratulations to Cassadee Pope. I picked her as an early favorite to win, although she wasn’t necessarily my favorite. I liked Terry McDermott, although he had an off night in the finale, and Nicholas David was also very good. Amanda Brown also caught my attention with “Dream On” and “Here I Go Again“, and I personally thought she went home too soon.

So why did it take me almost two weeks to get around to watching the finally? Well, that would be because I watch it On Demand. Specifically because I watch it with Verizon On Demand. I wanted to be very clear about this, because I don’t know for sure that all the vitriol I am about to unleash is applicable to every cable and satellite provider, although past experience with other systems would lead me to believe it is. Still, I want to be as fair as possible.

Once upon a time, I loved On Demand. It was just like watching TV, only without the commercials. I could also pause, rewind, fast forward, anything I wanted. Sure, I was paying a small fortune for access to these features, but I was willing to pay it, because what I was getting made it worthwhile. It was like having a DVR that I didn’t have to set up (although we have one of those too, I just don’t use it).

Then something went wrong. First it was little things. The pause button started timing out on programs. Annoying, but hey, it happens with DVDs sometimes. But then we couldn’t just restart where we left off, we would have to restart from the beginning. And then suddenly we can’t use features like fast forward. Uh-oh, this is ominous. Before you can say “screw the customer”, we’re getting commercials in our On Demand programming.

Oh, and the price of our cable bill keeps going up. But that’s kind of like death and taxes.

So this extra service that we’re paying for (a little more every month, it seems) is getting less valuable every month. Now, some of you might say, “why not just use the DVR? You said you have one, right?” Well, here’s how they screw us on that one, too. You need a separate box for every room, and we’re already paying extra just to have a basic cable box in our bedroom, which is where my wife and I watch TV. So we have to pay extra to watch TV when we want, and we have to pay extra to watch it where we want, AND we have to pay extra to watch without commercials, which we thought we were doing in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that TV isn’t free. All entertainment comes at a price, and that entertainment needs to be paid for. Broadcast TV (which traditionally came free to people’s home via, well, broadcast) was paid for by advertising. But cable (and it’s bastard stepchild, satellite) is not paid for exclusively through advertising. In fact, I’d like to know exactly what percentage of it is paid for each year in advertising revenue, because I know I’m paying a hefty sum just to get access to the most basic channels. (I’ll gladly pay the extra for HBO and Showtime, thanks.)

I’d like to say that they get away with this because they have a monopoly, and there is some truth to that. But there’s a deeper truth to it: they get away with it because I put up with it. I keep coming back for the “higher” internet speeds (read “please don’t choke my downloads”), I keep coming back for the “On Demand television” (none of the convenience, all of the commercials), I keep coming back for the crappy service and the “customer service line” whose responses are less “how can I help you” and more “sounds like your problem”.

I used to buy entire seasons of shows on DVD and watch them that way. Sure, it put me way behind everyone else in the office, running from water coolers with my ears covered screaming “NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS!” for months at a time, but it’s getting to that point again anyway. At least back then I didn’t have to watch commercials in the meantime. I’d consider switching to watching TV on the internet, but they’re usually a season behind AND have commercials, plus I still have Verizon internet. So if anyone has a better idea I’m all ears.

Until then, don’t tell me who won Season 4 of “The Voice” until at least a month after it’s over.

Let’s Talk About Sex. Better Yet, Let’s Not.

Quick show of hands: how many of us are actually comfortable talking about sex? I don’t mean in a roundabout way, or in a joking way, or even in a clinical way. I mean an honest, open discussion about the kind of sex that happens every day, maybe even the kind of sex we are having on a regular basis (if we’re lucky). I’m not imagining a lot of hands are up right now, even among the health teachers out there, and there’s a good reason for that. Well, not good, as such, but a well-documented one at any rate.

There’s a puritan taboo in the American culture and psyche regarding sex. We can discuss violence, death, psychological trauma, divorce, even Pauly Shore movies with minimal discomfort (well, maybe not Bio-Dome, that thing scarred me), but we simply can’t have a frank discussion about sex. I can laugh about it with my friends, dance around it with my mom ever since THE TALK, and never, ever admit it happens when my in-laws are around. If I turn to the one source of knowledge that informed my youth, television, I discover that sex consists of two people wearing pajamas kissing goodnight and sharing a bed, with a soundtrack of “oooOOOOOOooohhh!!!” If I rely on its younger sibling, the internet… you know what, I can’t even repeat what the internet showed me. I just need to go wash my eyes out. With industrial strength cleanser.

Obviously I can’t step outside of my own cultural baggage and experiences to say whether or not this is “unhealthy” or “bad” or “disturbing as all hell”, especially in comparison to other countries, where they seem to serve soft-core porn with the soft-serve ice cream. All I can say with certainty at this point is there has to be some better way, some sort of middle ground that neither glorifies sex nor demonizes it. There’s so much that sex can be, any discussion or portrayal of it is by definition going to be incomplete. However, I can take a look at some of the portrayals of sex in American popular culture (no, I will not now nor in the foreseeable future consider the internet to be “popular culture”) and see what common pitfalls there are and if I think anyone is getting it close to right.

First, I think most of the shows on HBO and Showtime today are getting it wrong. The sex is gratuitous, which I couldn’t care less about, but more importantly it is irrelevant. Every time I see sex show up in one of these shows it seems to exist purely for titillation, rarely if ever to drive the plot forward. That’s not to say the characters’ sex lives don’t drive the plot forward, but the portrayal itself adds nothing. In particular I am thinking of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and House of Lies. At least when they do violence or politics (medieval or office) on those shows they get it right.

On the other end of the spectrum is broadcast television, which in spite of the FCC has gotten to the point of acknowledging that people do, if fact, have sex. Not on camera, of course, but at least it does occasionally get discussed. Even here though it is oblique, rarely referenced except in the most banal and inoffensive ways for fear of some octogenarian degenerate somewhere filing a complaint just to get their jollies off by telling everyone else what to do. I would cite examples, but really, just watch primetime TV.

So what are some good examples? Not that I was ever a fan, but the few times I was forced to watch it, it seemed like Sex and the City got the balance right. The sex scenes, while sometimes graphic, always had a purpose and lent weight and credence to the situations and characters. In the same vein, I’m not loving Girls on HBO, but the few episodes I have watched have some very uncomfortable sex scenes that make very important character and story points I just can’t see being portrayed as clearly and compactly without just putting it out there, for lack of a better phrase. One show that I do like a lot that I think gets the balance right is Lost Girl on SyFy. Considering the protagonist is a succubus, there’s pretty much a guarantee of a lot of sex, but it is for the most part done tastefully and within context of the needs of the story. They don’t linger just for the sake of a few cheap thrills, but they don’t shy away either.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m some kind of prude who’s afraid or ashamed of sex. Not to go into too much detail, but I was once a twenty-something male with a credit card and access to the internet. There’s nothing wrong with cinema whose greatest contribution is the archetype of the Pizza Delivery Boy or the Pool Cleaner. But if that’s all you’re aiming for, then by all means don’t waste my time with dialogue and story. On the other hand, if you are attempting something a little more highbrow, don’t insult me by assuming I either can’t handle seeing naked skin or you have to have gymnastic bedroom exploits every five minutes. Focus on the story, and if sex is a natural part of that story, let it happen naturally. Maybe then we can start to treat it as something natural.

Disappointing Delights

I’m a huge fan of guilty pleasures. Whether it’s the horrors of eighties hair bands or watching cartoons from my childhood just for the pure nostalgic value of them (“…and knowing is half the battle!”), I feel neither guilt nor shame for indulging myself in these decadent delights. What I do regret however is when I delve into what should be a guilty pleasure and find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations of it. Such is the case for two pleasures I have tried recently, only one of which I will go back for again and can recommend to others.

The first is Burger King’s Bacon Sundae. You heard me right. I actually tried that monstrosity, and damn proud to say it. Why shouldn’t I? It’s everything I should love in a desert: bacon, vanilla soft serve, bacon, chocolate fudge, bacon, caramel, and best of all it’s got bacon. Nothing that has bacon can be all bad, right? And that’s the worst part: it wasn’t all bad. It was meh. I’ve had better, I’ve had worse. I should not be able to walk away from any sundae and think “sure, it was okay, but I could have had a vanilla cone”, let alone one with bacon.

To be fair, I didn’t eat it right as the guy handed it to me because I got it from the drive-thru, but seriously, who’s gonna eat this monstrosity in the restaurant with everybody watching? I will say this for it, though: that first bite was a special kind of magic. I may just have to get some bacon powder and sprinkle it on my next bowl of vanilla ice cream, or maybe even bacon bits. Or both. Mmmmm, bacon. All things considered, I would give this one a pass.

The other recent disappointment for me is Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. I had high hopes for this one at the outset. The writing seemed sharp, witty, and vibrant, the characters seemed fully realized, and the idea of challenging the status quo of both right and left Big Media™ by Taking a Stand and Speaking Truth to Power actually appealed to me. Sure, I was aware going in that Sorkin was the brainchild behind The West Wing, arguable the most lefty show on the airwaves in the past twenty years that didn’t star Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, but a guy can dream. Then I actually watched the show. I won’t criticize the politics of the show, but you can read an interesting piece I mostly agree with here that does. I will however address its other shortcomings.

Despite all the desperate defenses and protestations to the contrary, the show is one-sided. Balance in news coverage is not (or does not have to be) equivalency, despite Sorkin’s assertions in this show; it is simply the admission that not everyone believes the same thing and giving reasonable people a chance to air their opinions. There is no balance here, and I’m not suggesting there should be, although when you say things like (and I’m paraphrasing) “we’ll include intelligent opposing views” in your very first episode but you never do, the implication is that either (a) you don’t believe there is such a thing as an intelligent opposing view, or (b) you are unable to even acknowledge opposing views. Both are common flaws in major media today, but I was really hoping for something more. That same lack of balance makes all the characters horrible caricatures. The good guys are shining good, the bad guys might as well be twirling their mustaches. It borders on being clown shoes.

Which is a damn shame, because despite all of that, it’s still a damn good show. The actors rise above the source material to deliver powerful, compelling performances. I actually care about their characters, and I want to see them grow. When they aren’t busy lecturing me (although I do love to hear them lecture each other) they manage to be witty, or tragic, or just fun. There are more moments that make me laugh, cry, and cheer in one hour than a whole night of network television. Most of all, there is sex and violence and foul language, but it is tasteful, meaningful, and drives the plot rather than being driven by it. There is nothing gratuitous here; I am shocked, not by the simple fact that Sam Waterston’s character dropped the F-bomb, but by the fact he would have the gall to stand up to his boss in that manner. And that is compelling television.

My advice to Aaron Sorkin is set your politics aside and do what you do best: write witty, adult television. Until he does, my advice to everyone else is to set your politics aside, just like I do, and watch The Network so you can get a dose of witty, adult television. Best case scenario, everybody else gets the message and it raises the bar. Worst case scenario, you see some good TV.

Oh, and get me some vanilla ice cream with bacon sprinkles while you’re at it.


UPDATE: SInce I mentioned 80s cartoons, this seemed like the best place for this, even if it is a bit of a downer. I just found out that Roger Slifer, a major creative force in a lot of 80s cartoons including “The Transformers”, is in a bad way. If you are interested in helping, they are accepting donations here.