The Age of Self Promotion

When a person’s image and/or reputation is inflated, sometimes people lament, “Big hat, no cattle.” A lot of people today, like the President of the United States, excel at promoting themselves more than anything else. Thanks to the public’s allegiance to valueless media, we’re making a mockery of merit.

A case study. My July morning routine entails working out, eating breakfast, making a green tea latte, and then settling in to the day’s Tour de France stage which I spend about thirty minutes fast forwarding through.

This year there are three cyclists from the U.S. in le Tour, meaning about 1.5% of the total peloton. One of the U.S. riders is barely surviving the mountain climbs, just making the maximum time cuts. But because we’re living in the Age of Self Promotion, that same rider is starring on the U.S. television coverage, dropping daily broh-heavy “behind the scenes” video segments that add nothing to the event. He seems likable enough because of a goofy personality. And maybe the fact that both of his parents were professional cyclists and he’s bounced back from a horrific accident a few years ago contribute to some of his faux-fame as well.

But even accounting for those extenuating circumstances, the fact that he’s in damn near last place would only matter if we were in an Age of Meritocracy, but we’re not. Increasingly, we’re surrounded by people with really, really big hats. Which makes it tough to see the front of the race.

Television Highs and Lows

Watching television comes with obvious opportunity costs. You’re (usually) not burning calories, getting to know real live human begins better, or (usually) learning much.

Despite those downsides, I agree with a lot of critics that the quality of television content has never been higher. Especially with Netflix and other similar portals, there are a lot of good shows—past and present—to choose among.

Here’s the Television Writers Guild of America list of the best 101 written television shows of all time. And from that list, here are the top ten shows currently airing new episodes:

7) Mad Men

11) The Simpsons (one more season left)

13) Breaking Bad

16) Arrested Development (resurrected by Netflix)

17) The Daily Show

25) Saturday Night Live

34) Modern Family

40) Game of Thrones

43) Downton Abbey

48) Homeland

And, let’s not forget, a particularly excellent one just wrapped—21) 30 Rock.

The digital video recorder has transformed my viewing experience by making commercials obsolete. Thursday night I tried watching the start of the NBA finals, but the major network showed about fifteen to twenty minutes of commercials right before the tip. It was brutal. So I channel surfed until the game started. I often record sports events and then begin watching them an hour or so later without commercials, without timeouts, without incessant video replays, and even without inconsequential action (like huddles, lining up putts, even walking the ball up the court). When timed perfectly, I finish the tape just as the event is ending in real time. Mad skills.

The rewind feature of the modern DVR is also sups cool. I was floored by Julia Dale‘s rendition of the National Anthem before game 1 of the NBA finals last Thursday night. “Come here and watch this,” I yelled to peeps in the kitchen. Then rewound it for a second viewing. My second favorite performance of the Anthem after Marvin Gaye’s which I was lucky enough to experience live.

Of course there are ways television could be improved. If people stopped watching “reality” shows and the cable “news” circus, they’d go away. More aggravating to me, is some shows gratuitous use of the “f” word and penchant for glorifying drinking.

I’ve been a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus since she first started shoving Jerry in the chest on Seinfeld, so recently I gave her Home Box Office series Veep a whirl, in which she plays the Vice President of the U.S. Let’s just say the cute, spunky, chest shoving Elaine of Seinfeld is long gone. In her place is an insecure, foulmouthed, unlikable character. I don’t think of swearing in terms of moral failure. Ever since teaching high school, I’ve been unfazed by profanity. But I don’t like it when it’s forced and exaggerated. I counted 38 “f-bombs” in two consecutive 25 minute episodes. I find it hard to believe that Joe Biden and his staff use the f-word in semi-public nearly once per minute (Rahm Emmanuel maybe).

When a wise guy on Soprano’s or a Jonathan Franzen character lets it rip it adds to the story’s believability, but when the first female vice president or her staffers swear every minute (f-bombs plus more run of the mill profanities), things fall apart. HBO suits must think their success is the result of their characters saying things that characters on the major networks cannot. But it’s not. It’s based upon interesting story lines and strong character development that gritty language sometimes contributes to. Note to HBO, the swearing is an authentic and artistic means to an end, not an end itself.

Then there’s Zooey Deschanel’s show, New Girl, which takes moral irresponsibility to new levels. Like Veep it’s a clever, even funny show, with amusing characters who play their parts well. It’s target audience is probably my 18 and 21 year old daughters. The characters are 30, but in a Seinfeld-like manner, are stuck in a perpetual sex and drinking college-like vortex. In the hands of the shows writers and producers, drinking heavily is both fun and funny. I challenge you to identify one entire 22 minute episode of New Girls that that doesn’t glorify excessive drinking and/or random premarital sex. It’s a shame that responsibility and moderation do not attract as many eyeballs.

You and I would probably be better off with Amish romance novels.

Television Review—Netflix’s Lilyhammer

I’m halfway through Netflix’s first original television series, an eight episode series titled “Lilyhammer” that takes place in Lillehammer, Norway. Episodes are 45 minutes long or about 20k on the bike trainer. It’s solid and hopefully a positive sign of things to come from Netflix. Here’s their brief description.

After he testifies against a Mafia boss, ex-gangster Frank Tagliano enters the witness protection program and asks to be sent to Norway. Despite the peaceful surroundings, it’s not long before Frank strays from the straight and narrow.

I dig it and I’m awarding it an “A-“. Full-disclosure, I lived near Lillehammer for a few months five years ago and have fond memories of a ski weekend there, a memorable dinner party, and a school visit where I was the guest teacher. I’m smitten by the setting so adjust your grade at home accordingly. The scenes of the train station, the white farm houses against the snow, the shops in town, the countryside, the ski jump, the Birkebeiner cross country ski race all take me back to that time.

Besides the distinctive and extraordinarily beautiful setting which makes it worthwhile alone, the show works because of the wonderfully authentic and quirky Norwegian cast. Incompetent cops are played out in American television comedies, but their Norwegian counterparts are good for a new and steady stream of cross-cultural laughs. It’s well written, moves at a nice pace, thoughtfully explores cross-cultural differences, and is decently acted.

I deducted half a grade because Steven Van Zandt, of Soprano fame, is too much of a caricature of an American mobster. He could and should be much more nuanced and subtle. Related to this, it will be interesting to see whether Netflix has learned the lesson of the Sopranos. Somehow, despite Tony Soprano’s incredibly flawed nature, he was likable. He could have a guy whacked, or whack him himself, and cheat on his wife. Then when he walked into the kitchen you’d cheer the fact that his favorite pasta was ready and waiting. An unsolvable television mystery.

Four espisodes in, Frank Tagliano or Johnny Henrikssen, isn’t as likable as Tony. I’m not sure whether he has the necessary charisma and charm to compensate for his buffoonery. Also, his romantic relationship with a much younger woman fails the believability test.

Despite those flaws, I’m looking forward to the next four episodes.

Soprano-related postscript—Is there a more powerful portrait of an addict on television than Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie?

House Hunters International on HGTV

Love it.

Or I should say “really like it” since moms always says, “You can’t love something that can’t love you back.”

Each tightly packed episode is a thirty minute long travel/house hunting fix. A person, couple, or family chooses among three residences in some foreign country. Recently, while watching a college football game, I caught most of two episodes*. The first was about a British man and an American woman who met in Orange County, California. They were moving to England. Immune to our recession apparently, he needed a large garage for his cars and she needed a dance studio.

The second couple, an Irish man and an American woman moving from Chicago to Ireland, had two small girls. Appears as if Euro men are stealing our women, but I digress. Their Chicago house had a small yard “where every time the girls kicked the ball it hit the wall”. He wanted at least an acre which they eventually found a few minutes from where he grew up.

A few times in the episode he implied his girls needed a large yard, but I couldn’t help but think he was projecting his past on their present. We all do that to some degree don’t we? Recreate our childhoods for our own children in some form—whether tangibly in terms of the house and neighborhood environment or intangibly in terms of norms, expectations, ethos?

Did the toddlers really “need” a soccer pitch-sized backyard? Would their lives turn out much differently with a small yard or if they found a house near a public park? All I could think of was how much of his time and money he was going to have to spend maintaining his giant patch of grass. To each is own.

Dear HGTV network. How about a show with the same format, but focusing on minimalists proactively embracing our new economic realities by looking for smaller yards, less space, less clutter, lower energy costs? People convinced that some cliches, like “less is more,” might just be true.

House Hunters Downsizing. Or Downsizing House Hunters. Either way, I’d watch it during college football commercials.

• This requires deft remote controlling. And I’m the deftest. Which brings to mind the best sports story from the last month. A 97-year-old man who wanted to watch a Milwaukee Brewers playoff game called 911 to report someone had stolen his remote control. According to the Greenfield police report: The man called 911 to report someone had stolen his remote control from his residence in the 9300 block of West Howard Avenue prior to 8 p.m. Sept. 26. The remote control was found after police responded, so the man was able to watch the Brewers game.

Modern Family

Modern Family is my family’s favorite television show. Only twenty-two minutes in length, it always garners guffaws. When we watch it separately and come back together we ritualistically recite our favorite lines from memory. Even though I’m older than Phil, I want to be him when I grow up.

A recent New York Times columnist’s deconstruction of it wasn’t too terribly illuminating.

I would have expected some slippage by now, but each episode is as tightly written and produced as the previous one. Wonder how many hilarious, heartwarming episodes they have queued up?

Like every hit show I suspect, MF’s success starts with the writing. But its success is also explained by three myths we happily embrace.

Myth one. Interpersonal family conflicts are resolved quickly and simply, mostly within twenty-two minutes. Pilot episode—gay son and his partner don’t feel accepted by the gay son’s dad. Throw in an international adoption, jab him a bit about his old-fashioned homophobia, and acceptance follows. MF provides a fantastical break from the complex, intractable conflicts that shape our lives.

Myth two. The three families live close to one another, enjoy one another’s company, and make time for one another. For most people, the phrase “extended family” is quite literal. Take me for example, my three siblings live in three different states, my mother in a fourth. Their closeness is endearing.

Myth three. Work is unrelated to wealth. This is great news for American viewers for whom fiscal responsibility doesn’t require sacrifice. MF is nearly as work-free an environment as Seinfeld’s apartment. Phil recently showed a house, but the housing correction hasn’t impacted his family’s lifestyle. All three families drive nice cars, live in very nice homes, and very rarely work. Magically, mortgages, car payments, and vacations all get paid for.

And of course for Pacific Northwest viewers like my family and me, the warm and sunny SoCal setting doesn’t hurt either.

Contemporary Challenges to Writing Well

Follow up to the previous post, “Writing Hard”.

When working on their drafts, I ask my writing students to continually self-assess whether they’ve been sufficiently introspective and whether they have interesting ideas to communicate.

Sufficient introspection is tough for an increasing number of students who are unable to unplug for any time of real consequence. For some of my students, not texting for an hour and forty-five minutes is excruciating. I wonder, how introspective can one be when alternating between texting, talking, listening to music, facebooking, tweeting, watching youtubes most recent viral videos, or streaming films?

A second challenge is sufficient exposure to complex and challenging content. This challenge takes two forms—the quality of curriculum materials in school and the personal choices made outside of school.

With respect to the later, young people watch a lot more television and movies than they do read. That’s not inevitably negative, depending on the relative quality of their preferred television programming and movies.

Extrapolating from my students and my daughters and their friends, today adolescents tend to watch television and films that fail the complex and challenging test.

Again I wonder, if they’re unable to unplug and they’re switching between Gossip Girls, Camp Rock, and Legally Blonde (my frame of reference is admittedly female) what can we expect from them in terms of interesting ideas?

Postscript: I’m not immune from these challenges, particularly unplugging. I am too easily distracted. That partially explains why it took me so long to FINALLY finish Franzen’s Freedom. Whew, masterful. Worth noting, he said he worked on it in an office without an internet connection. Currently I’m reading The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. And last night the family and labradude gathered for this excellent film. Fifteen was NOT happy it was subtitled, but she dug deep and read for the whole 2 hours. She’s still not quite forgiven the Galpal and I for subjecting her to this excellent film five years ago.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Without Commercials

Most people are far more accepting of ubiquitous advertising than me. Resistance may be futile when it comes to Madison Avenue, but I’m not going down without a fight, even if I’m the last one standing. Not sure how to explain my intense anti-commercialism, except that it relates to my dislike of mindless consumerism more generally.

What forms does my quirkiness take? I can’t believe people don’t replace or remove the dealer’s license plate frame when they buy a vehicle. Why add advertising to my field of vision and provide the dealer with free advertising? If you think that’s odd, I also wonder why I provide free advertising in terms of my car’s badging. I’d remove my car’s badging, but I’m afraid I’d scratch the paint and leave holes. I’d love to overhear someone say “What kind of car is that?” In this same some-what demented spirit, I wish I could pay more for advertising-free versions of the periodicals I subscribe to. Of course if it made economic sense to offer two versions, one with advertising, one without, publishers would do it. More evidence I’m in a distinct minority.

Related to this, check out this incredible innovation. Thank you David Pogue for bringing that to my attention and to the creators whomever you are. My nomination for the Nobel Prize for Technological Innovation.

Readability is one salvo in the war for people’s attention when on-line. These days, when I click on “Gamecast” to see a sport’s scoreboard on ESPN’s website, I have to endure a 30 second commercial before the score and statistics are visible. Apparently, my preferred computer company has applied for a patent that will give them the potential to apply that same diabolical form of advertising to future devices. I’ll be very disappointed if that turns out to be true.

In related news, believe it or not, Mr. Late Adaptor bought a new television a few months ago. [In the background right now three teens are doing homework (mostly). They’ve just been joined by a fourth on a laptop via Skype video-conferencing. Best quote, “We should probably work.”] I can’t tell you the brand of my new television otherwise I might provide them free advertising. Let’s just say it rhymes with Supersonic. The picture is unbelievable and I’ve connected it to the internet via ethernet cable.

This is where it starts to get good. The Supersonic comes with Amazon-On-Demand built in. Created an account in 30 seconds and a few minutes later downloaded nine or ten episodes of Mad Men for $2.99/per or $3.17 with taxes. We can stream movies too. Soon I’m sure they’ll add Netflix. Now L and I can watch MadMen whenever we want without commercials. I repeat, without commercials. Twelve minutes of commercials times the fifteen or so episodes. Serious time savings, not to mention improved continuity. Another fam favorite, Modern Family. That was a form of advertising wasn’t it?

I can hear the early and middle adaptors laughing. I know, welcome to the 21st Century. For me, this represents a great leap forward in television viewing. Soon my preferred computer company will charge $30 or so per month for unlimited streaming. People will stream programming of their choice to their televisions and handheld personal devices. Sometime soon we’ll tell young people about how we used to gather together on Thursday nights to watch commercials with some Cheers, Seinfield, and the Office mixed in. I suppose we’ll still gather together in real-time for some sporting events, but I’m looking forward to this bold new world of commercial free streaming.

I’m not so naive to think the MadAve army is going to raise a white flag. But for now at least, it’s advantage A, L, to the Dizzle.