Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sheldon and Benji

Some boob tubers from a couch potato....

- How long before the TV picture tube goes the way of the 8-track tape (and the term "boob tube" becomes even more arcane)? It’s already hard to find a new one. Wal-mart has vast rows of flat-screen TVs, but only a single model of the old type. Our 27-inch TV seems like a relic, our 13-incher even more so. I have tried calculating what size 16:9 TV would provide a similar screen height to the bigger set (sometime I should research the origin of measuring screens diagonally). I think something in the 34-inch range will do it, but I’ll probably take a measuring tape to the store when the time comes.

- It was neat to hear Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory mention that Jesus was actually probably born in the spring, and that the celebration was put at its current time by the early church to coincide with a Roman festival for greater popular appeal. Yes, it was done in a comic context – Sheldon also said that the Grinch’s position on Christmas was much more courageous and sound until he wimped out and caved in to societal norms - but you don’t often hear statements like that on mainstream network TV, especially on a lightweight sitcom.

- I came upon the movie Benji the Hunted on TV the other day while my wife was watching a DVD of the movie Santa Buddies on her daughter’s computer, and I couldn’t help noticing the contrast. In case you’re not familiar with those cinematic works, Santa Buddies is a typical modern movie using live animals with voices (complete with moving mouths) digitally added. Benji the Hunted, on the other hand, is a movie (one of a series) in the classic mode with no talking animals (in this case no dialog at all for most of the movie). It’s funny to recall that the Benji movies were considered cute kid’s fare at the time (Disney products, no less); compared to Santa Buddies and others of that type they’re Apocalypse Now. In particular the long shot of the wolf falling off the cliff and hitting the ground would have no chance of being in a current kid’s movie, at least done like that. I guess the movie makers hadn’t quite given up on the idea that kids don’t need to be sheltered from anything resembling intense reality. Now it seems that they just moved that stuff to full animation, where it seems to catch less heat.

I tried to imagine what the Benji movie would look like if it were made like Santa Buddies, with the animals all having voices, the cougar kittens high and squeaky, the wolf deep and nasty, etc. To my mind it would take away what little edge the movie had. It’s hard to get too caught up in the peril of a talking dog. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin wouldn’t have been the same. My two favorite animated dogs, Snoopy and the dog from the Grinch cartoon, didn’t have voices. To me the lack of animal voices gives Benji a realistic feel that is decidedly lacking (in the case of Santa Buddies, probably intentionally; I’m sure the producers were going for a cartoonish vibe) in most modern animal-related dramas. It’s closer to the documentary feel of films such as March of the Penguins. That feel does, as one reviewer said, make it a bit tough to watch at times. But it avoids that extra layer of sweetness that I find annoying in any movie that is supposed to have some drama, the layer that keeps me away from movies like Santa Buddies.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Following is Not a Paid Advertisement

Ruminations from an indecent hour.....

The number and variety of "paid programs" - those 30-minute commercials poorly masquerading as TV shows – on in the middle of the night amazes me. It's hard to believe they can all make money. When I was at KEVN Companies paid a flat fee to have them aired, which was easy money for the station and filled air time. (Some didn’t get much bang for their buck. I once got a call from the answering service for one that had just aired asking to confirm that we did actually broadcast it; apparently there was no response.) I liked them because it was 30 minutes without worrying about commercial breaks.

Unfortunately, to make sure they aired properly we still had to pay a little attention to them, and they could be tough to watch. For me the low was a spiel sponsored by Jerry Falwell’s organization offering to sell you a copy of what they alleged was evidence convicting the Clinton Administration of every sort of nefarious deed, up to and including the "murder" of Vince Foster (remember that?), all for a low, low price. I remember thinking, "If you’ve really got the goods on the President and most of his people, why haven’t you acted like a conscientious citizen and given it to any willing prosecutor, investigative reporter and Congressman (of which there would have plenty), instead of peddling it like a sidewalk tabloid hawker?" I really hadn’t given Falwell much thought up to that point; he was just part of our Sunday morning gasbags-for-God lineup. But that shameful piece of hucksterism (which I should point out was separate from his regular show and in which, if I recall correctly, he did not actually participate) wrote him off as a credible person to me.

Over the years I took a number of telephone calls about station programming choices such as that one and the frequent preempting of Meet the Press, with viewers frequently accusing the station of bias of some type. I always told them that as far as I know there was no non-financial agenda at KEVN. As long as your check cashed and you didn't violate any laws or cause too much trouble for station management you could get on the air, and at just about any time you wanted if the check was big enough. (I once had to start Matlock 30 minutes early to accommodate a paid program, which meant tape-delaying an early feed by half an hour instead of taking it right off the satellite. It also meant that it was already half over at its usual start time.) TV preachers were just like any other paid program as far as the station was concerned. What mattered was that they paid very well; well enough for the station to preempt NBC’s NFL pre-game show when necessary.

That anything-for-a-buck philosophy is probably necessary to some degree in small-market TV, but it did become tiresome after a while, particularly when I had to answer the angry calls. (Those Matlock viewers were a loyal and vocal bunch.) I personally found the frequent preempting of the weekend NBC Nightly News for a paid program to be somewhat unseemly. Since I left I understand they occasionally did the same thing to the weekday NBC News; the local news crew must have been just giddy to have an infomercial as a lead-in instead of Tom Brokaw. They eventually sold their soul to Rupert Murdoch and became a Fox affiliate, which I’m sure happened purely because FOX wrote a large check, but it seems like a good philosophical match as well.

Night Notes

Ah, another stretch of overnights; time to wander around the gray matter.....or is it grey matter? Merriam-Webster says that grey is a variant of gray, so either is apparently acceptable. Grey somehow seems more classic, more Olde English.

- The cable TV music feed is a nice change from the radio. They play a different mix and don’t have commercials. On the other hand, they played the full-length version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, reminding me that it is possible for even a decent rock song to be too long, at least without the aid of recreational chemicals.

Speaking of recreational chemicals, the gentleman who works next door gave me two chocolate-covered peppermint sticks, which I’m sure have been around a long time but didn’t come into my life until recently. It does make a nice combination, but I can’t help wondering if it was one of those accidental ideas, most famously expressed in the old Reese’s candy-bar-dropped-into-chocolate ad campaign. I suppose it could have been a spontaneous idea; someone just decided to try it to see if it would work. A great deal of my cooking skill has come from that concept. I think my best idea came when, lacking lettuce for tacos, I substituted dill pickle slices (again, I’m sure it had been done, but I hadn’t seen it). My daughter liked it, and lettuce has not reappeared in tacos at our house.

- Perhaps I’ve just become jaded, but this year the "holiday" season hasn’t seemed as interminable as in past years. We’ve actually gotten to what I consider an acceptable time to be pushing crap-for-Christmas without me experiencing an urge to assault anyone or anything mentioning it. I guess I’ve been too occupied with more important things to pay much attention to the preseason hype. We’ve also gotten the family gathering arranged, which is usually a large headache. Whatever the reason, it is refreshing to see December on the calendar and feel something besides fatigue and the desperate desire for it to be over.