November 20, 2017

Sittin’ Around, Watching TV

Careful readers of this blog will remember that it heartily recommended (over the course of two consecutive columns, no less!) that people get out of the house and see the movie Hugo.  Furthermore, I have wanted to see The Artist since a saw a few clips from it last year on the BBC before it was released.  When I saw that each of these two films had gathered more nominations for Academy Awards than any other movies from this year’s crop I thought:  hmm, that’s interesting.  I mean, I thought it was interesting that two films about the early days of movies, about the actual history of cinema could become so attractive not just to the general public, but to that specific audience of academy members.  It seemed that there was an idea here, something worthy of this blog’s attention.  Just what that idea was, or could be, I had no clue, but there did seem to be something there.

So, in the interest of pure research, I decided to watch the Academy Awards Show with the hope of catching a spark or two glinting off its many shiny surfaces.  There was a flaw, however, in the Project Concept which was revealed when I looked for the show in the TV listings:  It started at 3 AM!  This meant there were two possibilities.  Option One meant setting the alarm to wake up then (Prospective Outcome:  significantly less than zero); or Option Two, staying up until the show began (Prospective Outcome:  only slightly better than Option One).  Despite all manifestations suggesting otherwise, I actually am a realist and went with Option Two.  And this presented the main problem:  how do I stay up that long?  Lately, when I begin an evening reading I have never been able to make it past midnight (and when I say “lately” I mean the past fifteen years).  It looked like a long night of channel surfing lay ahead of me and, folks, that’s what happened:  hours and hours mind-numbing stupefaction.

You do know what they put on after Prime Time, don’t you?  I mean, if you think Prime Time is the pits of Hell, you should see what comes after that!  It is the mind-equivalent of being in the center of the merciless, searing, relentless, no-way-out Sahara at noon.  This is the stuff that comes out of the Discard Bins at those distributor’s exhibitions that they have to package with other shows that couldn’t cut it in Brazil, Ukraine, or Upper Pradesh, the rock bottom stuff that is so far worse than just amazingly bad it can’t even be categorized, it has its own separate metaphysical dimension of nullity.  And in the middle of all this channel flipping I come upon an veritable, lush, refreshing oasis as I hit into a mid-episode of Studio 60.  Really, it was like coming upon Shangri-la.  And it made me wonder…

What is it that separates something acceptable on TV from the other 99% that is broadcast?  And even further:  what is it that separates something agreeable, even engaging, on TV from the other 99.99% that is broadcast?  It occurred to me that what makes a TV show “acceptable” are its production values and the overall quality of what goes into it (such as character and plot development, overall narrative, etc.) that conforms to those values.  For example, Mad Men is acceptable because of its explicit attention to the overall retro feel and its concentration on minute 1960s details, as well as a cast of well-defined characters.  I’ve seen it a few times, and it was acceptable.  But I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.  But, for Studio 60 I would.  Why?

As I watched through my wasteland-derived Studio 60 episode, I tried to put my finger on what it was that so kept my attention, that kept me so connected to what was happening on the screen, and what would happen next.  I finally discovered it.  But it wasn’t until the last scene.  And I didn’t realize it until after the last scene.  And here’s what it is, what separates a show like Studio 60 from the rest, and even from a show like Mad Men:  unpredictability.  With most shows, you can almost precisely predict what they are going to say, what they are going to do.  But because Aaron Sorkin is the creator and the writer of Studio 60 you can’t really anticipate what the main characters are going to say, and they invariably say things that are not only unpredictable but they say them in highly original ways.  But more than that.  Each scene is loaded with subsidiary or auxiliary elements, and all this additional information requires time to process and demands not only attention but engagement.  In fact, you often feel you are one or two steps behind what is happening when you watch it.  You figure it out seconds later.

Okay, here’s the last scene:  the two protagonists run a live TV show, and they are always fighting against time.  In their shared office they have installed a huge digital clock, a manifest reminder of the battle they are always losing.  In that last scene one of them walks right up to the clock.  You see a close-up of him as he says, “One day I am going to make you my friend.”  Then there is a rear shot of him, over his shoulder, you see the minutes running past, and I find myself thinking that the clock always wins.  But I notice something written above the clock, and it says:    Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

It wasn’t until the credits started rolling that I got it, and then laughed out loud.

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Comments

  1. phil bloom says:

    We older citizense remember fondly Playhouse 90 and a genre of black and white plus a small smattering of silent film (for those old enough to glimpse the last non talking films) These are our memories.. They were created by artists all.. and we savor them to this day, but, and this is the one important point that runs through a cycle of life. The new generations have their genre and they too will lament as we have a longing for the past.. We just have to wait another 50 years to hear their lamentings (in print or otherwise)

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