Tag: television

Reacher on Amazon Prime Is Amazing

I read my first Jack Reacher book, The Killing Floor by Lee Child, in 2015. I enjoyed it. It was fun. I read a second one in late 2016. Again, it was fun and I enjoyed the book. Then in February 2018, I was down for more than a week with the flu (it was one of those years when the vaccine wasn’t very effective) and I went on a Reacher binge. I read 4 Jack Reacher novels in that week. I read three more in the week that followed, and four more the week after that. By April 1, 2018 I’d made it through 21 Jack Reacher novel. These were light reading. They were fun: Reacher is a fantasy character, the tough guy who isn’t intimidated by anyone. Since then, I’ve kept up with the Reacher books, and while the most recent book, Better Off Dead was not nearly as good, the core of those first 21 books were solid, enjoyable, entertaining reads.

I’ve seen the two Jack Reacher movies starring Tom Cruise, and like many Reacher fans, I puzzled over the casting of Cruise as Reacher. Reacher is huge: 6′ 5″. Cruise is not huge. Reacher hold himself in a certain way that Cruise just couldn’t match on the screen.

A while back Lee Child hinted that there might be a Reacher series in the future, and on February 4, the new Reacher series debuted on Amazon Prime. I’d been looking forward to it for a while, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. In fact, I was blown away by it. Alan Ritchson is the perfect Jack Reacher — I say this as someone who has read all of the books (and short stories). Not only is he the right size, but the way he carries himself, his bearing, his expressions, his attitude is perfect Reacher.

Fans of the books know the typical Reacher refrain: “Reacher said nothing.” Ritchson conveys this through expressions alone many times throughout the first season, something that I think is harder than it sounds. His face shows what he is thinking while he says nothing.

The books have detailed fight scenes that kind of happen in slow motion so that every punch and kick can be described. Reacher comes across as a powerful fighter. Watching Ritchson in the new series, and contrasting his style of fighting to Tom Cruise in the movies, Ritchson is that powerful fighter that Reacher is supposed to be.

There were other gems in the first season, which covers the very first Jack Reacher novel, The Killing Floor, not altering too much, except the timeframe (a few years later than the books). One gem was the appearance of Frances Neagley, one of my favorite recurring characters from the books. I can’t be certain, but I don’t htink Neagley appeared in the first Reacher novel. She appears in the series and I was so excited to see her there.

Another little (spoiler-free) gem was a scene in the final episode of the season when Reacher walks into a diner and kind of bumps shoulder with a patron walking out. The patron, about as tall as Ritchson, although lanky, excuses himself, and walks out. Fans will recognize that patron as none other than Lee Child.

The only downside I found in the new series was that it was too short for me. I burned through the eight epiodes in two days, and now, will likely have to wait a year or more before I get to see Ritchson playing Reacher again. I wonder which novel they will be this time. Already I can’t wait.

Written on February 4, 2022.

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My Initial Thoughts on Apple TV’s Adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (with Spoilers)

SPOILERS AHEAD: Given my initial apprehensions about Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation, and my many readings of Asimov’s series of the years, I couldn’t find a way to write this post without including spoilers both to the two episodes that have appeared thus far, and to the books. If you have not yet watched the first two episodes of Apple TV’s Foundation, or have not read the Foundation novels and plan to either, be warned: spoilers to both lie here within.

This past Friday, I sat down to watch the first two episodes of Apple TV’s production of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. If you are here to find out if my apprehensions were well-founded, or if I liked what I saw, and want to avoid any spoilers, read no further than the next three sentences: I loved it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time on Sunday.

To understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did requires knowing something about the Foundation stories, and that is why spoilers are required. If you are not interested in anything more than whether or not I liked it, you have the answer now, and can stop reading. Thanks for stopping by. If you are curious as to why I think it so good, thus far, read on, but be warned, spoilers follow.

1. Understand that this is an adaptation

I went into this with the clear recognition that this was an adaptation of Asimov’s work. Adaptations, at least good ones, are not meant to be strict copies of the original canon. They bring to bear the views and artistic insights of those involved in adapting the story. Some adaptations are bad: the 2004 adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I. Robot is one example, in my opinion. There was very little of the heart of the robot stories in that movie. A good adaptation maintains the heart of the original and builds upon it. Think of The Shawshank Redemption. It is an outstanding adaptation to an outstanding story, but it is not an exact copy. There are important changes that make it different, interesting, and yet you can see the core there, and how it was built upon.

The core is there in Apple TV’s Foundation. Almost from the outset, we hear the names “Salvor Hardin”, “Hober Mallow”, and “the Mule.” We hear them in the voice of Gaal Dornick, who in addition to playing a pivotal role in the story, acts as the episodes’ narrator. And even that stays true to the original stories. In “The Encyclopedists,” written in 1950 as a kind of prequel to the original Foundation stories (which themselves were written in the 1940s), we are told:

…the best existing authority we have for the details of [Hari Seldon’s] life is the biography written by Gaal Dornick, who, as a young man, met Seldon two years before the great mathematician’s death.

2. Depth and background has been added to the story

But Gaal Dornick is not a young man in the Apple TV adaptation; she is a young woman and one with an interesting background. This is an example of the depth and background that as been added to the story in the adaptation.

Isaac Asimov wrote about ideas. He wasn’t much for backstory, and where it existed in his original Foundation stories, it was there to further the ideas about which he wrote. Readers have often complained, for instance, that many of Asimov’s stories, including the early Foundation stories, completely lacked women. Asimov argued that at the time he wrote these stories (he was 21 when he started the first Foundation story) he had no experience with women. That is a flaw in the Foundation stories that he attempts to correct in some of the later stories.

In Apple TV’s Foundation, the adaptation faces this head-on. Gaal Dornick is woman. Salvor Hardin is a woman. And perhaps best of all, Eto Demerzel is a woman.

I loved the backstory given to Gaal Dornick, and I liked the idea of the triumvirate of Dawn, Day, and Dusk, that make up the cloned descendants of Cleon I who rule the empire. These are details that breathe life into characters originally written to serve ideas in the story, rather than be living, breathing people in their own right.

Raych is another character that has been introduced early, and here, things are more subtle, because Raych was fleshed somewhat in the latter Foundation novels in the 1980s. We know in the Apple TV adaptation that Raych is Hari Seldon’s son, but we know he is his adopted son. We don’t know much more than that.

3. Moving through time

Gaal Dornick narrates the story, and we see that story move between the “present” time, when the Foundation is on Terminus, 35 years after the trial of Hari Seldon. We see the mysterious Vault, and the kids who try to make it as far into the null field that surrounds the vault as they can, to plant their flag. We learn that Salvor Hardin, the “Warden” has made it the farthest of anyone, that she doesn’t seem to be affected by the null field. We don’t know what the null field is, or why it is there, or what it is hiding in the vault, other than rumors of a ghost.

Of course, if you’ve read the books, you have a good idea of what is going on here. The null field is a kind of mental barrier that can’t be passed by most people. And there is only one group who could create such a mental barrier. I’ll come to that a bit later.

The episodes set up short segments on Terminus in the present, and then flash back 35 years to the time when Hari Seldon’s predictions are revealed to the galaxy during his trial.

Once again, the heart of the Foundation stories are preserved here. The trial of Hari Seldon differs mainly in that Gaal Dornick is also on trial, and that she is there to verify his claims. A line from the original remains in the script, when the advocate in the trial presses Seldon on the fact that the empire has been around for 12,000 years and seems as strong as ever. In the book, Seldon says, “The rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of strength it ever had,” The Hari Seldon on screen in the adaptation says something very similar.

4. The core story is being told in the best way possible for the medium

Isaac Asimov had no idea where the stories where going when he wrote them. Remember, that the original Foundation trilogy was a collection of stories that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. Asimov wrote the first without any idea of what would happen next. John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, tried to convince Asimov to produce an outline of the future history of the Galactic Empire, in much the same way Robert A. Heinlein had produced an outline for his Future History stories, but Asimov refused. That wasn’t how he worked.

Those adapting the story had an advantage that Asimov never had: they knew the entire story before they ever started out. And it was clear to me that they planned to take full advantage of that fact.

Serious spoilers ahead, so take heed.

I was delighted to see Eto Demerzel show up early in the first episode. Demerzel was introduced in the Foundation stories late in the game, in Prelude to Foundation, published in the late 1980s. If the Galactic Empire has been around for 12,000 years, well, guess what, Demerzel has been around longer. She has used different names, and appeared under different guises (including male guises) because Eto Demerzel is robot. We get hints of this in the second episode, when Dawn watches her repair herself from an injury she sustained.

She is not just any robot, however, she is a robot named R. Daniel Olivaw, who made is first appearance in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. While she appears as the Empire’s advisor, she is an ally of Hari Seldon and his cause.

Hari Seldon always intended for the Foundation to be established with imperial support, but away from the eyes of the empire. He used his predictive science of psychohistory to try to get the Foundation established on Terminus–and his plan succeeded. But there is a question that no one has yet asked: his science is predictive; how then, did he manipulate events in his favor?

There is a scene in the first episode that gives a clue. On her journey from Synnax to Trantor, Gaal experience the Jump–that passage through hyperspace that allows a galaxy-spanning empire to exist in the first place. Passengers are put to sleep during the jump because, as the spy Jerill says, “Your mind might separate from your body.” Except that Gaal awakens during the sleep and sees the passage. One of the Spacers asks, “How can you be awake?” and then puts her back out. What is it that makes Gaal different?

Toward the end of the first episode, we get a second hint. Just before terrorists blow up the star bridge, Gaal looks up to the sky and tells Hari that the sky is not right, that there is something wrong with the bridge. How did she know before it happened?

The answers to these question, I suspect, lie with the idea that the adaptation has been created with full knowledge of the events of the Foundation stories, and advantage Asimov did not have when he wrote them.

Consider: in the books, Hari Seldon never goes to Terminus. He has other business to attend to. In the adaptation, he goes with the team to Termius in the slow-ship, so that the journey takes over 5 years to get there. But, as we discover toward the end of the second episode, Seldon apparently dies–is killed, it would seem, and Raych, puts Gaal Dornick in an escape pod and launches her into space. It seems that with Seldon seemingly dead and Gaal gone, we are back on track.

I believe this is the writers attempt to setup the bigger reveal: Seldon, along with Gaal and likely with the help of Demerzel, return to Trantor to establish the second Foundation. The second Foundation is the secret Foundation. It is the one that must work in secret for it is the one that can manipulate history through subtle mental abilities that can influence people’s behavior. I suspect that Gaal’s waking up during the Jump, and her knowing there was something wrong with the star bridge before anything happened were clues that she was someone with this mental ability. At one point she says, “I could feel the Empire’s fear.” At another point, in the library after meeting with Gaal, Raych asks Hari for his impressions: “She solved Abraxis, of that I’m sure,” Seldon said, “As for the other thing…”

This mental ability is “the other thing” to which Seldon is referring.

5. Exciting possibilities

All of this makes for exciting possibilities. I can see the future episodes being split between the establishment of the first Foundation on Terminus, and the struggles they go through as they grow, develop, and begin to handle each of the “Seldon Crises” that arise in order to help minimize the duration of the Dark Ages. At the same time, with Seldon and Dornick back on Trantor, we have not only a view of the establishment of the Second Foundation, their secret role, but also a direct view into he fall of the Empire. This makes the most sense to me and it makes for dramatic episodic televisions as well.

6. Sense of wonder

After I watched the first two episodes of Foundation, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking about it. It was a visual marvel. And what occurred to me is that I was seeing much of what I imagined when I first read the books. Gaal’s reaction to Trantor was my own. I never questioned it, and it felt like what I was seeing was the Trantor I had always imagined. The feeling lingered, and just before I decided to watch the two episodes a second time, I realized what that feeling was: it was the sense of wonder that attracted me to science fiction in the first place. It has been a long time since I’d felt that sense of wonder. The fact that Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation could generate that sense of wonder within me probably explains, to a large extent, why I loved the first two episodes so much.

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Why Do People Hate Ted Lasso?

I’m late to the party, but I recently watched the first season of Ted Lasso, and the first six episodes of the second season of the show, and I’ve got to say, it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen on television in a while. And yet, I’ve been seeing articles that suddenly, everyone hates Ted Lasso. I haven’t read the articles, because I really enjoy Ted Lasso and if other people want to hate it, that’s fine with me, but I just don’t understand why they date it.

I’ll tell you why I love it instead. I love the optimism of the show. I haven’t been able to stomach dramas for a long time because they are just too dramatic for me. Superhero shows (and movies) have taken a darker tone lately. I totally get that the reality of the world is darker than our fiction sometimes perceives it, but my entire reason for the rare instances when I do watch shows is to escape from that darkness. I admit it. I need a break. I want to escape and live in a different world for a little while. Ted Lasso fit that bill perfectly for me. There is little that gets Ted down (although he is not immune to moments of high anxiety). He always has a nice thing to say about others. He is cheerful and funny and I wish more people were like him. Heck, I wish I was like him.

After watching a few episodes, I find myself speaking with a drawl to my kids, trying to sooth them when they are upset. The only other show that can fill me with that kind of optimism is the the Dick Van Dyke show. Why is it that there is a such a negative reaction to this kind of optimism. Do people find it bland? Unrealistic in the midst of a global pandemic? I’m baffled by this.

My perception of things is that at some point, television programs went from being pure entertainment to having to be deeply reflective of the times they represent. They had to have arcs that carried them through more than 22 or 42 minutes. They had to be laced with cliffhangers and gimmicks to keep eyeballs returning each week. But they never really needed any of that. I think of my favorite shows growing up: shows like Magnum, P.I. or MacGyver or M*A*S*H1. They were episodic in nature, meaning each episode was a self-contained unit. It was like dipping into an anthology or short story collection. No need to know what went before or came after. They were bite-sized chunks of entertainment.

That is not to say that the shows did not reflect their times, but they did so by their very existence, not by overt action. Reboots highlight this. Looking at a reboot of a show from twenty years ago, we think of the original as dated, when it simply reflected the times in which it was made. I often think of the difference between Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Harry the King as a good illustration of this. Ted Lasso in many ways captures the essence of the times we live in, but takes a step outside the norm to portray an optimism which runs against the grain of most of the shows I’ve seen over the course of the last decade.

Maybe Ted is a little too perfect. Maybe he is ignoring his own pain. Maybe the show doesn’t reflect the realities of life in the 2020s. So what? It makes me happy to watch it, and that’s more than I can say about most television shows I’ve seen lately.

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  1. Pure coincidence they all begin with an M.

What People are Watching

A question I always ask myself first thing in the morning is what other people are watching on Netflix. Before looking at the newspapers or glancing out the window for some hint at the weather, I just have to know what people are watching. This is why I am so glad that Netflix saw fit to send me a message letting me know what other people are watching in my area.

Netflix defines my area as “United States”. This represents about 2% of the total land area on earth, so while it is not as specific as I hoped, it gives me means of comparison. I was hoping to learn what other people are watching in my neighborhood, and in particular, in the two or three surrounding blocks

According to this top 10 list that Netflix provided me, without my ever having to ask them for it, people are watching:

  • 2 game shows. They call this “reality TV” but these are nothing more than rebranded game shows.
  • a movie (The Stowaway) which seems based on a premise based on a science fiction story called “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The story was first published in 1954.
  • a kids cartoon show
  • an David Attenborough animal show, which I realize is a redundant way to describe animal shows.
  • 2 sitcoms
  • 3 other dramas

Let’s see, 2 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 3 = 10. Yup, that’s ten alright.

Netflix was not only kind enough to send me this message today, but they sent me another message with a reminder: “Don’t forget to finish The Crown.” What would I do without these reminders? If Netflix hadn’t prodded me, I might have forgotten that I hadn’t finished The Crown. I might have forgotten that I began to lose interest at the end of Season 3, and pretty much lost complete interest after Season 4 episode 1.

It is nice to know that part of the fees I pay to Netflix are used to tell me what other people in my area are watching, and reminding me to finish watching things that I haven’t finished. I think this, as opposed to producing good television, is an excellent use of money.

Taking a few minutes out of my day to see what people living in the 3.797 million square miles we share in the United States has its uses. It reminds me that (a) I am not missing anything, and (b) my time is better spent doing things I enjoy than watching things that other people are watching just because they are watching them. It’s reassuring to know that the few seconds I waste looking at what other people are watching represent hours saved by not having to watch the shows themselves. Was it Douglas Adams who wrote about the device that watches television for you? Netflix’s kind message reminds me that there are hundreds of millions of people watching TV for me.

Being mildly prodded to finish watch a series that I’d already started is a different matter. If I don’t like a book, I give it up as soon as I recognize I don’t like it. There are too many other books in the world I want to read to waste much time on one that I don’t like. If I was still in school and had to read the book whether I liked it or not, that would be one thing. But I am not in school. No one is grading me on whether or not I finish The Crown (except perhaps a Netflix algorithm). I’ve moved onto other, more enjoyable things.

Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking

Watching The Crown on Netflix recently, I noted that every episode has the following warning at the top-left of the screen when it begins:

Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking

I find these kinds of warning silly. I imagine that there are people who, upon seeing such a warning, will stay away from the program. This is the intended function, I suppose. But such a warning is nothing more than a dare to younger people.

Interestingly, in the case of The Crown at least, anyone reading said warning and then eagerly watching the show hoping for sex, nudity, language, and smoking will be somewhat disappointed. I have made it a little more than halfway through the second season and so far have not encountered any sex, nudity, or language (other than that of upper class English). Smoking, however, is another matter. Perhaps the warning should read:

Smoking, Smoking, Smoking, Smoking

It occurred to me for the first time (perhaps because I am slow on the uptake) that these warning are listed in order of seriousness, although that doesn’t seem to be quite the right word. Harmful to young minds, perhaps? If that is the case, I am rather amused.

Sex, when safe, doesn’t seem particularly harmful. If nudity were harmful I think we’d all be taking showers in our swimwear. Language, well, they do say the pen is mightier than the sword, and certainly words can sometimes hurt, but I’m not sure that is what the warning is about. Finally, we come to smoking.

Of all four items in this list, smoking is the only one I know of that causes cancer. I do find it a little ridiculous that the warning has made its way from cigarette packages to television shows on a streaming service that I willingly pay for (as opposed to say broadcast television). But still, I think we can all agree that smoking is harmful. And there is a lot of it in The Crown.

Incidentally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I am really enjoying the show. I think that John Lithgow’s performance as Sir Winston Churchill is about the best Churchill I’ve seen done. Back in the summer of 2014 (I think) I read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Churchill and it was phenomenal. Indeed, parts of it were incredibly moving, such as the death of Marigold Churchill. That moved me so much that I wrote a post about it that has become a surprisingly evergreen post, though I have never figured out why. Anyway, the show is a good one, well-written, and well-acted, and while I can’t speak to its complete historical accuracy, it’s fun to watch.

Still, every time I start a new episode, I am reminded of the warning: Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking. Each time I eagerly await the first three (the fourth is a given) and each time, I come away a little disappointed. (Indeed, The Crown is downright prude compared to Bridgerton, a half dozen or so scenes of which I have caught while Kelly watched it. The warning on that show might read: Sex, Sex on Stairs, Sex in Baths, Sex in Hallways.)

Here are some thoughts that come to mind when I see the warning:

  1. If anyone is looking for a name for an album or painting, you could do worse than Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking.
  2. Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking reads like an order of operation. In old movies, doesn’t the (implied) sex come first and the smoking come last?
  3. I wonder what Churchill would have had to say about warnings like these? For language, at least, we know, as he is famous for his quip about ending sentences with prepositions: “That is the kind of English up with which I will not put.”

There is at least one good thing about the warning: without it, I would have had nothing to write about this evening.

Given that warnings like these seem to proliferate, it makes me wonder if I need a warning at the top of each of my posts here on the blog. I have some ideas but they all either involve sex, nudity, language, or smoking, and out of an abundance of sensitivity on my part, I will spare sharing them with you.

10 Things That Annoy Me About TV Shows

Much of the TV I watch these days is through osmosis. While I am reading, Kelly will be watching something and some of what she watches seeps through.

Here are some things that annoy me about TV shows today:

  1. When the stars of a medical drama become patients in the hospital they work in.
  2. When the detectives/police in a police drama become suspects of a crime and their colleagues have to help prove them innocent.
  3. Whenever a new person comes in to “shake up” the team.
  4. Actors talking on telephones when you can only hear one side of the conversation.
  5. Characters explaining obvious parts about their job to coworkers for the benefit of the audience.
  6. Long title sequences on old shows.
  7. Any show that begins with some dramatic event (an explosion, an expected revelation) and then cuts to a blanks screen that reads: “24 hours earlier.” This is just plain lazy storytelling.
  8. Any computer code you see on screens in the show.
  9. When a show moves from network television to a streaming service (such as Netflix) and suddenly, characters that never swore are swearing every other word.
  10. Any show that ends in a cliff-hanger.

Here are a five things I don’t see enough of when I watch TV shows:

  1. Breaking the fourth wall.
  2. Hollywood in-jokes (there was a great episode of Millennium that did this).
  3. Product placement as a way of making fun of product placement.
  4. Clever ways of sneaking around network censors. (A lost art thanks to cable and streaming services.)
  5. Good variety shows.

I’m wracking my brain for an example of a book that I’ve read that annoys me in any of these ways. The closest I can come is a series book that ends in a big cliff-hanger. I can’t come up with an example of a book with a long title sequence, except perhaps Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

A Few Thoughts on Reality TV

On weekend mornings I usually find my two girls up early watching episodes of a reality TV show called Sugar Rush. They have seen every episode and they know the winner of each one, but they still watch it, seemed glued to it in fact. Maybe it’s all of the confections the contestants make during the course of the show. In any case, it made me think about reality TV and I jotted some thoughts down in my Field Notes notebook. Here are the one’s I can still make out.

  • “Reality” TV is obviously a marketing gimmick. None of the TV shows I’ve ever seen come to what I think of as reality. How often are you followed around all day by a full production crew?
  • The term obviously didn’t go over well from the start. People started calling it “unscripted.” Then other people said that it really was scripted. Who knows?
  • There is a term for reality TV that I think fits perfectly. No, not junk, don’t be cynical. The term I was thinking of was “game show”. How is reality TV just not another form of game show? Game shows are relatively unscripted. There is usually are usually winners and losers.
  • Reality TV is really nothing new, even when it doesn’t feel like a game show. People my age will remember shows like Battle of the Network Stars which were the 1970s version of reality TV.

Most reality shows have a tell when they aren’t working out very well. If the “story” being told (people cooped up in a house, or stranded on an island) isn’t compelling enough, they manipulate the audience by dragging things out. The do this even on a show like Sugar Rush. When the contest is down to the last two teams, and they need 2 out of 3 votes to win, that third tie-breaking vote is inevitably dragged out over a commercial break. “My vote goes to…” the judge says, and then the camera goes around and shows everyone’s face. Cut to commercial, then repeat, drag it out a little longer, before finally revealing the winner.

Storytelling that requires that kind of manipulation is on life-support.

Consider, say, a baseball game. I suppose, stretching the matter, you might think of sports as reality TV. It is, after all relatively unscripted (boxing and wrestling excluded, of course). Imagine now, if you will, the following scenario unfolding on your television screen.

“Two on, two outs, two ball, two strike, and the Yankees are down two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Jeter digs in at the plate. Here comes the pitch!” We watch as Jeter makes solid contact and the ball is rising high, but is it enough? Runner are advancing with two out. “Did he get enough?” the announcers say. Then we cut to a commercial and when we return, it is to a replay of what we just saw, but this time, we’ll see the outcome.

Would any sports fan in the world tolerate that?

That, my friends, is the problem with reality TV.

What’s Happened to the Television Season?

What’s happened to the television season? Back in 1961, there were 30 episodes of the first season of the Dick Van Dyke Show. At an average of 25 minutes per episode, that made for 750 minutes of television in the season.

The recent phenomenon, The Mandalorian, has 8 episodes in a season, each coming in, on average, at about 40 minutes. That’s 320 minutes of television per season, or less than half of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Why are streaming seasons so short?

I first noticed this years ago with shows on HBO, when seasons were anywhere form 12-18 episodes, but generally hovered around the 13-episodes-per-season mark. The trend seems to have taken hold, but I don’t understand why. You’d think people would want more of a show, not less. After all, we went from 30 episodes in the 1960s, to 24-25 episodes in the 1970s, to 20-22 in the 1980s. There’s be a declined, but it seems that things really took a drop with streaming services.

Is this because of costs? Since the streaming shows don’t generally have commercials, they have to rely on subscriptions for revenues. Maybe subscriptions don’t support more than 8-12 episodes per season?

Or is it that the production quality is better now? I’ve read that television today is more like film than classic television and that adds to the costs, I imagine. A better product costs more money.

I’m not a big television-watcher, but I think there could be a better balance between quality and quantity when it comes to television. I don’t need my shows to be film quality. A well-written show can mask a lot of low-quality set costs and effects. Maybe the problem is a dearth of well-written shows? 8 shows per season hardly seems worth investing in. 30 may be excessive. I think somewhere between 18-22 is the right number to aim for in a season.

And why do we still call them “seasons”? These shows are not seasonal anymore. They come out when they come out. They often drop all episodes at once. Gone are “sweeps” weeks (remember those?) Remember how the new “season” started in the fall, and after Dallas and its “Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger, we all had to wait 4 months or so on the edge of our seats to find out what happened?

The British call a “season” a “series” but I’m not sure that is right either. (The British used to call a trillion a billion. I think they changed that finally.) Series implied the entire run, not just a single year. Given that there is usually one “season” per year, maybe a better term would be “year.” As in Seinfeld, Year 1, Night Court, Year 3, and The West Wing, Year 81

Series that are serials (where you have to watch an earlier season to understand a later one) versus those that are anthologies, where you can dip in almost anywhere should have a different naming convention. Maybe instead of “episode” a single part of a serial would be a “chapter.” I don’t know what you’d call a single part of an anthology. Episode?

I guess the up-side of a shorter season is that I don’t spend as much time watching TV as I used to. Indeed, with a Mandalorian season taking the time that the Dick Van Dyke Show took to air, I can watch TV twice as fast as I used to.

  1. Yes, I know the West Wing ran only 7 seasons, but I can dream, can’t it?

Cobra Kai and 80s Nostalgia

A few years back I’d heard vaguely about a new show called Cobra Kai that was a kind of update of the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Specifically, the show starred Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two rivals from the original film. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’m not, as readers know, a big TV person.

Recently, however, I’d heard a lot of buzz about season 3 of the series dropping on Netflix, and the buzz was generally positive. I asked around, and the people I talked to liked it. I needed a bit of a break from the reading I was doing, so yesterday evening, I settled down to watch the first episode.

I can’t think of another television show that has surprised me so much by exceeding my expectations as much as Cobra Kai did. I realize that much of it is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but for me, it hit all of the right buttons. Consider:

In the original film, Daniel LaRusso had just moved to Reseda, California from the east coast (specifically, Newark, NJ). When the movie came out in June 1984, I had been living in Granada Hills, California, not far from Reseda, having moved less than a year earlier from the east coast. So his character, not much older than me at the time, resonated with me, the outsider in a new place.

I went to high school in Reseda, California. My single favorite line from a Tom Petty song is from “Free Fallin'”, when Petty sings, “And it’s a long day, living in Reseda / There’s a freeway running through the yard.” All those places that showed up in the film were familiar to me, as they would be to any kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s.

Watching the Cobra Kai episodes brought all of that back in unexpected ways. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are now in their 50s with kids of their own. (I’m not quite in my 50s but I’m getting very close.) But they are still there in the Valley, and still tied to the people and places they knew growing up. There were clever parallels and reversals that made the show that much more enjoyable. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

The music in the series is perfect, with touchstones to the past. I some ways, I think of the 80s nostalgia in Cobra Kai the way the previous generation likely thought of the 50s nostalgia in Back to the Future. The show is dotted with clever humor. It is, for me at least, a complete delight, a surprise, and I can’t wait to watch more of it. (For those wondering, I’ve made it through the first season, so no spoilers, please).

I’ve been wanting my kids to see the original Karate Kid films for a some time now. They’ve enjoyed other movies from that era–The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Ferris Buller’s Day Off to name a few–and I thought they’d like The Karate Kid and that afterward, the might like Cobra Kai. Having watching it, however, I realize that they’ll lack the sense of nostalgia for the time and place. I think there is something special about The Karate Kid for kids who were around my age and living in the San Fernando Valley in 1984. Everyone else might enjoy the film and the show, but they lack a certain visceral context.

I’m not particularly fond of the trend in movies and television of rehashing what has worked int the past. It shows a decided lack of originality and creativity. But when it is done as well as it has been done in Cobra Kai, it can really be something enjoyable and special.

Tim Conway’s Elephant Story

I know that this is a classic episode of The Carol Burnett Show, and it has floated around the Internet for some time now. But every now and then, when I feel the need for a laugh, something to really revitalize my mood, I’ll turn to a video like this, and it is incredible how well it works for me. They say laughter is the best medicine, and in my book, this video and Tim Conway’s genius (and Vicky Lawrence’s one-liner at the end) prove this adage true. If you are in need of a laugh, well, you’re welcome.

The Golden Age of Television

I keep reading that we are in a golden age of television. Given how little I watch television these days, I have no direct experience to speak from. I assume that what is meant by “golden age of television” is the programs. But as I wander through my house, I might be convinced otherwise. Somehow, we’ve gone from a couple of televisions to 5 televisions. We have a great big one above the fireplace in the living room; one in our bedroom; one in the guest room/exercise room; one in the family room, and one in the playroom/Xbox room, I’m not really sure how this happened.

These are “smart TVs.” I don’t know how smart they really are, but they are slowly making the remote control obsolete, and anything that makes the remote obsolete is a sign of progress. Maybe we should call them “progressive TVs” instead. I’ve counted 9 remotes for these 5 TVs. Fortunately, most of them can be controlled by voice, so the remotes collect dust somewhere between the couch cushions. It took a while, but I no longer feel awkward asking Alexa to turn off the living room TV, or turning the volume down.

I suspect that when someone speaks of the golden age of television, they are not talking about television sets, but the programming. Specifically, I suspect they are talking about the premium programs that seem to be everywhere. We subscribe to HBO (through the cable company), Netflix, Disney+, and as Amazon Prime members, we also have access to Amazon Prime videos. I also managed to get a year of Apple TV+ for free, although I am still not certain how that came about. All of these produce original programming which, because it is subscription-based, has the potential for being high-quality.

I watched the first 2 episodes of The Mandalorian, and while I am a fan of both Star Wars and westerns, I was bored out of my mind after the first two and gave up.

Most of my entertainment comes from reading. I used to turn to television for something that I could dip into without thinking much about it. The problem these days is that most series have morphed into serials. You can’t dip into one episode, without watching the next, and the next, and the next. And thus, binge-watching is born. I don’t want to spend a lot of time watching. I want something where I can allow my brain to relax for 20 or 40 minutes between books without any cliff-hanger. Then, too, television dramas have become too over the top for me. On those instance when I do watch a drama, I often come away feeling totally wiped out.

The TVs, smart and progressive as they may be, are really just superfluous. I can watch Netflix, Disney+, HBO, and Amazon Prime on my phone, iPad, computer, and on the XBox. Indeed, with our cable, I can watch any of the hundreds of channels we get on my phone, iPad, computer, etc. so long as I am connected to the home network. In that kind of environment, we really don’t need one television, let alone five of them.

Golden age or not, I see a promising future for television, both from the devices and the programming. The nice thing I have discovered about watching a movie like Star Wars on the big TV over the fireplace is that, with the lights dimmed, it feels like I’m sitting in a movie theater. I see almost no value to going to the movies these days. No movie is worth the parking headaches, the cost of the tickets, popcorn, hotdog, or soda. I’d just as soon stay home and wait for the movie to be released on one of the streaming services. And yet… when I do go to the movie theater, usually about once a year, it always seems the theater is virtually empty.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution would be to take advantage of the high quality smart TVs and the streaming services and just send the movies direct to the services, forgoing the theater experience entirely. For me, it would be a win. I’m not sure what people get out of the movie theater experience these days, other than being able to see a picture a few months before everyone else. Eliminate that and there’s really no need for movie theaters any more. Imagine being able to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on release day in the comfort of your own house, with the lights dimmed, and munching on food you already have in the pantry. Even better: when you have to get up in the middle of Act 3 because you drank all of those sodas, you can pause the movie to ensure you don’t miss anything. Gone will be the days of millions of middle-aged men scampering back to their seats in a dark theater and whispering to their significant other, “What’d I miss?”

And what of the movie theater? Many will perish, but I imagine there will be one theater nearby that will show second runs of classic picture, and do so in style. It will be an occasion to dress for. Dinner and show will be an elegant affair the way it once was. All things come full circle.

I Can’t Take the Drama

I‘ve written about how I’ve pretty much given up TV. This is nothing new. I haven’t started watching a new show, or continued watching an existing show for two years now. When the Internet explodes with some spoiler bombshell about a television show, I generally have no idea what its about, although I may have heard of the show.

Sometimes, however, the brain needs a break, and by break, I mean something completely mindless. This has occurred more frequently in the last month. I don’t know if this is because of all of the mental energy I spend reading and writing, or if is the result of daily stress, or just a side-effect of getting older. Whatever the reason, I find myself needing to tune out for a while. And so I’ve turned to television.

After the kids are asleep, Kelly and I will watch a show or two. It is almost always one of three shows, always a repeat, and always a comedy. Usually it is either The Big Bang Theory (no real surprise there); How I Met Your Mother; or Modern Family. We laugh together, and I feel relaxed and refreshed afterward.

One thing that I can no longer take, however, not even for two minutes are television dramas1. Even hearing a drama on in the background will force me to relocate, or fish out my noise-cancelling headset. Comedies release tension and allow me to relax; television dramas do the exact opposite. I was thinking about why this should be and I came up with a few possibilities:

  1. There is enough drama in real-life so that I don’t need it seeping into my relaxation time.
  2. I no longer find dramas entertaining. These days, it seems that almost all dramas have been forced to become serials, as opposed to series. Story lines last entire seasons and some are designed with multi-season story arcs built-in. Gone are the days of Magnum P.I. when you could be entertained by any single episode, without having to first watch the 50 that came before.
  3. In the effort to get the highest ratings, dramas up the melodrama to the point where it is just unbearable. Story lines seem to be based entirely on edge-cases these days, with no happy middle ground.

It’s too much for me. There is enough drama in life. Add to that the drama I experience in my reading, to say nothing of the drama I create in my writing, and I think I’m pretty much finished with television dramas for good. This trend of binge-watching seasons of dramas on NetFlix and other streaming services fills me with cold dread.

I recognize that I might be missing out, but I just can’t take the drama. As interesting as the Internet made Breaking Bad sound, I’ve never seen a single episode, and I’m almost certain I never will. On the flip side, the time that I would spend watching these dramas has been filled with other things; more time to hang out with the family, and time to write every day.

While I usually avoid making sweeping assumptions, it seems to me that I can’t be the only one who feels this way about this trend with dramas. Perhaps I am now in the wrong demographic, but it seems to me that the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I wonder if it ever will?

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  1. Which, for Puckish reasons, I’ve taken to pronouncing in such a way that its rhymes with “gramma.”