Sunday, November 20, 2005

"I'm sick of it."

Time for another largely autobiographical post. "Yay!"

Writing about The Colbert Report and Arrested Development set me off on a train of thought, leading backward from my current stable of shows to my earliest encounters with the tube. For the sake of posterity, I will rearrange these thoughts in chronological order and present to you how I became the conneseieur I am today.

My parents, in a decision I will always love them for, decided that we would be PBS kids. I grew up with only non-commercial programming, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street; later 3-2-1 Contact and Square One. As far as I remember the only exception was on Saturday morning we would get to watch classic Looney Tunes for an hour.

Even now, people I tell this to sometimes react with amazement. They rattle off all the cartoons I should have been watching, vast swaths of pop culture that passed me by. As perplexed as they seem, I'm more perplexed at their perpexion. I really don't feel like I missed out on anything. When I happen to catch children's programming now, I'm stunned by how mindless much of it is, and how aggressive and manipulative the advertising. I have good memories of Mathnet and King Friday and don't feel I missed anything else. The only time I did was during one conversation in fourth grade when two kids asked me what my favorite shows were and laughes when I said "Square One."

I entered the world of commercial television very gradually. It all started during a sleepover at my friend Justin's house, probably during eighth grade. Like usual we played a lot of computer games and stayed up really late drinking caffeine and watching movies. Late at night, when my resistance was weakened, Justin popped in a videotape of recorded Simpsons episodes. Under ordinary circumstances I would have protested. Everything I had heard about that show made it sound evil and cancerous, a slimy half-hour of animation that directly attacked moral fiber. I'd never have watched it of my own volition, but I felt drained and accomodating.

Granted, I was in a receptive mood, but even so, the experience was surprisingly moving. The episodes were the one where Flanders goes crazy and "Streetcar! The Musical." There might have been another one in there too. I was blown away by the sharp humor, intelligent references, and rapid-fire pace of jokes. Not being steeped in pop culture, many allusions went over my head, but enough punches landed for me to laugh long and hard.

After that, I was hooked. Now, The Simpsons were still clearly Persona Non Grata in the King household, so my viewing would be on the sly, at friends' houses or late at night. I was jumping in after many seasons, so I had little sense of continuity and only gradually came to identify with the cast of characters. The more I saw the more I appreciated and the more I wanted to watch.

I could do a long post on just The Simpsons, but the purpose of including them here is in their role as gateway show. The next one I started to watch was the X-Files. This was during the peak of my fascination with the Illuminati and conspiracy theories, so this show's elaborately paranoid plots delighted me greatly. This is another show that gradually crept into my consciousness; I'd read about it in the paper years before I saw my first episode after moving to Illinois.

After leaving for college in 1999, the theoretical limits on television were lifted, but since Brad and I did not have a TV in our dorm room, my viewing schedule remained largely the same. I would go down to the projection TV in the building lobby on Sunday nights to watch the Simpsons, and that was basically it. When living in a suite with some other friends my sophomore year, we acquired a TV and the watching began to take off.

Shows from this period were almost exclusively Comedy Central pieces. Here is where I first encountered the Daily Show, which I still am devoted to. I would also catch classic episodes of Saturday Night Live, from the golden years of the early 90's and the dredges of the middle 80's. Beyond these staples, I kept up my Simpsons viewing and would occasionally catch stuff others were watching, mainly Discovery Channel documentaries and the like. I still didn't feel like I had embraced television, just that I'd found some things worth watching.

During this period I developed some survival skills for dealing with commercials. I never went into the living room without some homework or reading material, and made sure to keep busy during the filler. It was a small gesture, but one that allowed me to convince myself that I wasn't really wasting that much time.

This pattern of TV viewing continued through the rest of my college years, with the lineup changing (I found I could no longer stay up until 3AM watching SNL) but my habits remaining largely the same. We became slavishly devoted to TDS and would attract others who came just for the show. We discovered some gems on the International Channel - the original non-subbed, non-dubbed Dragonball Z, which Brian would halfheartedly translate for us while we stared at two battling characters who would pause for ten minutes between punches. Later came the Irresponsible Captain Tyler, to this day one of my favorite anime. Family Guy left. Iron Chef made a huge splash for a while. Dan developed a weird fascination with Bill O'Reilly. Win Ben Stein's Money was mildly amusing and then left. And there were regular parades of heavily edited-for-TV movies like Billy Madison. Oh, and every football game, generally with a crowd of enthusiastic Fantasy Football spectators.

I haven't had cable since graduation, which has changed things but not in the way you'd expect. While in downtown KC I could get grainy network TV and so I valiantly kept up Simpsons viewing (for a little while; it was around this point that I ceased caring about that terribly influential show) and Sunday football. There was a much better TV in the basement, and when working out I saw episodes of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" for the first time of my life. They were amusing, Seinfeld was definitely better but I can see why some people would like Friends.

Other than that, I was totally fine with not having cable, up until the 2004 campaign started. At this point I started getting some serious jones for the Daily Show. I missed Jon's incredibly trenchant commentary and the articulate political guests they were getting; even worse, I was reading in the paper about what a force the show was finally becoming. After some digging, I found ShunTV, a private Bit Torrent network that posted Daily Show episodes almost immediately after they aired. It became yet another ritual: I would start downloading the previous day's show in the morning, then watch it when I returned from work.

At first ShunTV was extremely focused and did almost nothing but TDS. As time went on, they added more shows, still generally hewing to the comedy lineup. I got my first taste of The Office (BBC) from them, as well as Drawn Together and some other edgy cable fare.

Watching TV in this way was a revolution. I was finally free from commercials, and found myself enjoying great programs even more; you get in a good mood after a few minutes of TDS and can keep it going for the whole 20 minutes without being interrupted by Levitra commercials. I felt some initial guilt about "stealing" my TV this way, but largely resigned myself to it. I still don't download software or movies, because there are clear and easy and legal ways to acquire them. I haven't downloaded an album since I got iTunes, because I'd rather pay a few bucks for a legal album than muck around on the Internet hunting for it. But content is shown on TV for free anyways; someone else has simply taped it for me and removed all the commercials. And I do support the shows I like - I bought the Firefly DVD set after downloading some episodes, I will pick up Arrested Development later this week, and even own the "Indecision 2004" box set from TDS. I just don't like commercials, and I like watching shows when I want to.

Anyways. Despite my occasional forray into other programming, I remained pretty focused on TDS and Fox animation. That changed last year when, for the first time ever, I got hooked on a network drama. Two, in fact.

Hugh Laurie has been my favorite actor for most of my life. I have many fond memories of watching him and Stephen Fry in "Jeeves and Wooster" (on PBS, natch). I've cheered him on as he gradually gets more US movie roles, and was elated when I learned that he had landed the title role in Fox's new drama, "House." I've been disappointed way too many times to give myself much hope, but I wished that Americans would finally realize what a great actor this guy is.

Much to my surprise, they did. Fox did an excellent job promoting the show and it really took off. I dug it, too. I saw the pilot based solely on Hugh Laurie's name. It hooked me from the opening notes to the title theme, brilliantly adapting Massive Attack's "Teardrop," one of my favorite songs. It sealed the deal with the excellent closing sequence, set to The Rolling Stone's "You Can't Always Get What You Want." What was in between was good - as I told people at the time, it would be an OK show on its own (fairly routine medical procedural), but Hugh Laurie's amazing performance takes it to another level. The character is fascinating and well-written, but Hugh is one of the only actors who could pull it off convincingly.

(Incidentally, the show has gotten even better. I need to pick up the Season 1 set at some point and re-acquaint myself, but I think it follows an interesting evolution. The first few episodes felt like they were written as "C.S.I. meets E.R.!" Then there was a stretch where it felt in danger of becoming a soap opera. It really found itself with the Volger arc, which featured several sequential episodes developing an ongoing plotline while further exploring the principles' motivations and abilities. "Three Stories" rightly won an Emmy for Best Script and should have given Hugh a statue as well. I've been swallowing up Season 2 so far, they're still letting the show evolve and give us more depth while not stinging on the excellent House-isms that drive each episode.)

In the case of House, I caught each episode when it first aired, commercials and all. In my new apartment, I don't get any Fox signal at all, so Bit Torrent rides to the rescue. (ShunTV got shut down, so I now use mininova.) Being able to do this keeps me hooked on the show and will mean more of my dollars in Fox's pocket when all is said and done.

The other show was "Lost." I was attracted to this for the same reason I was to House, pure name recognition. In this case it was Dominic Monaghan, Merry in Lord of the Rings, who was prominently featured in all the promotional spots for this show. I missed the pilot and the first few episodes, though, and had mostly forgotten about it. But then I started reading some criticism about how popular the show was, and how it was really good, and thought I'd give it a shot. Now, with a serial adventure like this, I never would have jumped in at episode 6. As it was, though, I could download the shows I'd missed, watch them, and decide that it really was a good show. Now I catch each new episode right when it airs, and fortunately I do get an ABC signal here.

These two shows finally convinced me that it's possible to get really high quality programming on television that rises to the level of movies. Sometimes better, even. TV shows have the advantage of an open-ended format and long running times. The latter allows a good show to do much more with character development, allusion and thematic exploration than a work with a 2-hour time limit. The former allows some exciting creative possibilities, as they are essentially redesigning the show while making it. I still think most TV is dreck, but I no longer think it has to be.

I'll probably look back at the House/Lost combo and identify this as the point when I really got into TV. Now I have so much on my hard drive I don't always get through it all in a week. I'm regularly viewing the Colbert Report, the occasional DS, House, Lost, My Name Is Earl, Arrested Development (don't kill it, Fox!), The Office (NBC), Everybody Hates Chris, Stella, American Dad, and Family Guy. They're great shows that ingest a dollop of humor or thought (or both) into my life and leave me with some extra energy, rarely thinking "Well, that was a waste of time."

Of course, nothing lasts forever. It's possible I'll get sick of staring at the screen so much and return to my hermitlike existence, only occasionally venturing out to grab a box set. Or we might be in the midst of a short-lived golden age, that will produce a flurry of good shows and then die off, leaving us with the next America's Funniest Home Videos. My personal hope is that digital methods of content distribution will ensure that people like me, who like my kind of shows, will be able to directly give financial support and ensure we continue to get our shows. Hopefully there won't be any commercials.

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