Thursday, July 30, 2009

Idiot Box No More

One recurring theme in my life (and Slog) is the floundering for creative approaches to problems which have impossibly obvious and simple solutions I'd somehow missed (most recent: Breaking Free of the Adhesion Mafia). This is one of them, I guess.

I've never owned a TV. For the past three years, I've had a monitor to watch DVDs, but never hooked up cable. I've always noted, with smugness, that everything I've gotten done -interests explored and skills acquired - was possible by opening the hours of leisure time most people tie up in passive viewership. Besides, TV sucks. We all know that.

Then, a few years ago, a really good television series or two appeared. I bought DVDs, and caught up late. No problem. But more and more shows appeared that I wanted to follow, and I started having trouble keeping up. DVDs are expensive, even though I mostly resell them when I'm done with them, and they invite a sort of compressed viewing that can feel overly intense (to get the idea, try watching the entire last season of dreary, hopeless Battlestar Galactica in a week). And for shows not available on DVD, I've faced the obstacle course of grabbing torrent or streaming video, converting to AVI (ten hours, minimum), burning to DVD, and hoping my Oppo upconverting DVD player will handle the file. And I've still never seen Mad Men, The Wire, True Blood, Doctor Who, Weeds, or Lost...though a few of their DVD boxed sets sit dusty in my bookshelf as I fall further and further behind.

I've had a brainstorm, though; a solution that will allow me to spread out my viewing, ensure a quality hi-def image quality, avoid the surfing for DVDs and files, and catch everything much sooner to broadcast: get cable and a TIVO, like everyone else.

Television has been so transformed that those trapped in outdated prejudices have been caught out. In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants. Right now, the zeitgeist is in television. Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's. So...I just need to shake the outdated notion that TV time is wasted time.

This week, Amazon has an amazing sale on boxed DVDs of some great TV series (if you want recommendations of the best ones, check out the blog I keep recommending: "What's Alan Watching?".


David said...

I wonder how much of this has to do with the rise of tivo, DVR and high throughput digital cable. 1- It's much easier for interested parties to catch every episode, and 2- it's much easier for people coming to the show mid-season to eventually slurp up everything they missed. Could something with the density of The Wire have been done in the 80's, when you would probably have to assume that even the most devoted fans would miss an episode or two per season?

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, it's a good point. Indeed, the networks (including cable channels) once demanded that series episodes worked as standalones. Then, a few years ago, they relented a bit, pushing for producers to at least offer SOME standalone there was a rash of "previously, on xxxxx" opening montage explainers.

At this point, it seems like it's pretty accepted that shows are serialized, and viewers are presumed to be caught up. And that surely has helped fuel the surge of creativity.

I was once offered the restaurant critic gig at the Daily News. I can't imagine how it would have choked my creativity to define, like, "ceviche" and "xo sauce" each and every time I used such terms. What a drag to always be starting from scratch! So, yeah, this could be a case of tremendous creative relief and release as these restrictions have eased.

But, really, I think it's mostly that good stuff clusters (we humans are more birdlike than we realize!). To return to the food analogy once more: if three really good eateries happen to open nearby each other, it creates a certain prevalent quality level, and they all start improving and nearby upstarts also tend to be high quality. Same for shittyness, too. So, according to this theory, a few good things happened on television a couple years back, and it was enough to constitute a critical mass. At this point, even TV-phobic me is on the verge of buying a Tivo!

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