I’m An Addict!

They say that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  Well, here goes!  My name is WD, and I’m an addict.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.  Despite what you see, I’m stuck in a secret cycle of abuse.  Oh, I’m good at hiding it, denying it.  I only use it to relax – unwind.  I can quit anytime I want to.  But no, I can’t.  I’ve tried.  I’m an addict.  For me, one is one too many and even a whole series is never enough.

I guess my story’s the usual one.  It all started innocently enough; just a few schoolboys having a bit of a vicarious adventure.  I don’t remember who tried it first, but by the end of the summer, all my friends and I were doing it every weekend.  For a while, it was all we could talk about.  Fortunately, the habits of the young are fickle, and when school started, most of my friends drifted away to homework and hockey practice.  However, I remained, every weekend, watching black and white back-to-back reruns of Richard Greene’s Robin Hood and Roger Moore in Ivanhoe.  Soon, an hour a week simply wasn’t enough, and I began experimenting on my own – searching for a bigger thrill.  It was then that I discovered … Doctor Who.  I remember thinking, I’ll just try it; I can always change the channel.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  I watched it all, even the credits, in the gathering twilight of an autumn afternoon.  It was a wonderful excitement, exhilarating and confused.  I was too young to truly understand what Time Lords were or the symbiotic relationship Who had with the Companion, but I wanted to know.  I wanted to open my perceptions to the sophisticated storylines, explore the language, and fill my senses with the ideas that I never found on regular TV.  I didn’t know it then, but I think I was already addicted — to British Television.

Emma Peel

From Doctor Who, it was easy to graduate to watching The Saint.  After all, Roger Moore was just Ivanhoe in a tuxedo – wasn’t he?  No, he was more than that — stronger, with deeper plots and worldly situations.  Then it was The Avengers.  Just as my pubescent friends were discovering the hidden fantasies of Barbara Eden’s belly button, I had Diana Rigg all to myself.  For a teenage boy, Emma Peel had a dizzying depth of character, compared to Anthony Nelson’s do-as-you’re-told Jeannie or the submissive Samantha Stevens.  She was my fee verte, and I was a slave to her.  Sated with suggested sex, mystery and espionage, when The Prisoner was broadcast in the early 70s, I was unable to resist.  I wallowed in its nonlinear drama, letting it wash over me, week after week, until — hauntingly unresolved — it ended, and left me empty and cold.

I should have stopped then – gone cold turkey — but I was ready for the hard stuff: Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Speedball comedy with a walloping high so potent that even today I find myself laughing outrageously in its etherealic flashbacks.  The Pythons opened my mind to non sequitur, the absurd, the tilted storyline, bizarre characterization and oh, so much more.  I don’t know how many traditional motifs I abandoned that winter.  It’s all a blur to me now.  But at the end of it, I knew I was never going back to North American TV.  I was hooked.

Since those heady days, I’ve spent forty years searching, always searching, for more of the roll-off-the-sofa/pee-your-pants highs that the Pythons delivered.  Through Fawlty Towers; Black Adder; Yes, Minister; Red Dwarf; Ab Fab; The Office and so many others.  Even Mr. Bean!  That’s how complete my habit has become.  And it wasn’t just comedy; it was drama, as well.  Mysteries, espionage, political intrigue — I’ve tried them all.  Night after night, I’d tell myself just one episode, but hours later, I’d still be slumped on the sofa — covered in cookie crumbs and stinking of Earl Grey tea.  The only thing that saved me from utter degradation was I’ve always had a violent allergic reaction to Jane Austen.  Otherwise, I would have been up to my eyes in costume drama.  Then along came Downton Abbey and I was lost.

Today, British television is easy to find.  My dealers were always PBS and The Knowledge Network, but now there are so many other ways to feed my habit.  Netflix, Prime, Acorn, Britbox — they’re all there – whole seasons of Sherlock, Broadchurch, Vera (back to the days of David Leon) House of Cards (the original with Ian Richardson) and even Lovejoy and Agatha Christie — if that’s what you fancy.  This year, I watched all ten seasons of MI5 again, 60 years of murder with Morse, Lewis and Endeavor and, of course Top Boy and Shetland.  But it doesn’t end there because late at night when my skin crawls for long vowels, Manchester accents and proper pronunciation, I surf through YouTube for snippets of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Cracker, The Inbetweeners and even grainy bits of Jimmy Nail’s Spender.

My name is WD, and I’m an addict.

Originally published 2013, and gently edited for 2020

6 Really Tired TV Trends

tvI just noticed that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has produced a new TV series called Pure.  It’s a scripted drama about (and I’m not making this up) a Mennonite family of drug dealers.  A Mennonite family of drug dealers!  Now, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.  But I digress.  So — uh — wow — a television series about a dysfunctional crime family.  What a novel idea!  (Sometimes I wish sarcasm had a font.)

I hate to say it folks, but the fantastic days of glued-to-the-sofa television are over.  The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Dexter, Deadwood and Breaking Bad are all gone — and they ain’t comin’ back.  There are a few leftovers from that 20-year entertainment banquet (notably, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead) but, in general, TV has gone back to the same old crap.  Why?  ‘Cause studio executives are beating audiences over the head with really, really, really tired ideas.  For example:

Cop Shows — There have been so many cop shows on TV recently that half the population of Hollywood has worn a badge at one time or another.  There were at least three NCISs, four CSIs, and God only knows how many Law and Orders.  People, it’s the same program!  All they do is change the skyline in the opening credits.

Paranormal Everything — Ever since aliens got the jump on agents Mulder and Scully, television producers have been trying to recapture those ratings — and, believe me, they’ve tried everything.  The litany of ghosts, trolls, witches, mutants, aliens, vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, superheroes and telekinetic, super-powered, extraordinary beings reads like an Aleister Crowley nightmare.  And have you ever noticed these programs never actually come to any conclusion?  They just keep going sideways until you’re so pissed off you could scream.

Talent Competitions — The format hasn’t changed since The Original Amateur Hour debuted on the DuMont Television Network in 1948, but since the 80s, there have been a ton of talent hunt programs like Star Search and American Idol on TV.  The problem is last year the market got so saturated that, for the first time in television history, there were more contestants than there were viewers!  OMG! Andy Warhol was right.

Cooking Shows — No, guess again; they’re Game Shows.  Cooking is now a competition, and any way you slice it, the formula is basically the same.  Several teams are given a bag of weird ingredients and told to make dinner (or dessert) before the third commercial break or get kicked to the curb. It’s basically Beat The Clock with butcher knives.  The only deviation is that sometimes a celebrity chef gets to swear at the competitors.

Quirky Ensemble Comedy Shows — And it came to pass that MASH begot Cheers and Cheers begot Seinfeld and Seinfeld begot Friends and Friends made piles of money, and so Friends begot How I Met Your Mother, Community, 30 Rock  and every other sitcom that’s looking to become the new Friends.

And finally:

Celebrity “Real TV” Reality Shows — If this were a more civilized time, the purveyors of these programs would be dragged from their homes and horsewhipped through the streets.

TV is Dead: Long Live TV!

tv ad2For a decade or so when I was young, I didn’t have a television machine.  It wasn’t because I have a philosophical argument with mass media – I don’t.  In fact, I’ve always been one of the cheerleaders – even back then.  Nor was it merely a sign of the times; despite popular mythology, even the most dedicated hippies of the Stoned Age watched television.  My situation was simple economics.  I couldn’t afford one in university, and it just got to be a habit.  As a result, I have no burning nostalgia for the days of Everybody Loves Friends TV.  To me, network television was just another brick in the media’s mind-numbing wall.  So, it’s with no emotion whatsoever that I can report the imminent death of television, and unlike Mark Twain’s premature demise, this is no exaggeration.

Let me clarify.  I’m not saying that those shiny screens we’ve got all over the place are going to follow the dinosaurs into extinction. Absolutely not.  Actually; I think we’re going to accumulate even more.  They’re going to get bigger.  They’re going to get smaller.  They’re going to be everywhere; and soon it’ll be impossible to escape their reflected glow.  But they’re not going to be the kind of television anybody born in the 20th century remembers.  Those times are gone and soon to be forgotten.

Way back in the day, when Milton Berle and Lucille Ball ruled the airwaves like media admirals, television was structured the same way as radio.  There were local programs of regional interest, but the national news and hardcore entertainment was provided by the networks.  We lived in a one-size-fits-all culture back then, and the whole family watched TV – together.  So when Lucy had “some ‘splaining to do” on Monday night, literally millions of people saw her do it and got the joke.  Network television built its power from those numbers and the massive advertising revenue they generated.  It was a lucrative arrangement, and TV to you and me was free.

Then along came cable.  Suddenly, media moguls discovered that the public would pay for television. What a novel idea!  Cable TV became the value-added medium that radio never had been.  People were willing to shell out substantial bucks for a few extra beyond-the-rabbit-ears channels and consistent sound and picture quality.  Within a couple of years, North America was wired up and life was good in media land.

Then along came Ted Turner, a guy who made a billion dollar career out of thinking outside the box.  In the early 70s, he figured out that the huge advertising dollars the big three networks were generating was simply a numbers game.  He knew that if he could broadcast his local station, WTCG, nationally, like the networks did through their affiliates, he could produce those numbers also and the ad revenue they generated.  Unfortunately, Ted didn’t have a network, or any affiliates or even very much money.  However, Ted realized he didn’t need any of those things because he could use the TV cables that local media companies had been stringing up all over the continent.  Those cables were hardwired into Ted’s potential national audience.  In 1976, the FCC approved Ted’s plan to broadcast WTCG nationally through hundreds of local cable networks, and the first Superstation was born.

From there, the floodgates were open.  Soon there were other superstations—notably, WGN Chicago and, of course, CNN.  By tv ad3the time Bill Clinton was in the White House, everybody and his friend had a specialty channel.  At the turn of the century, the 500 channel universe was alive and thriving and, ironically enough, already dying, as technology began to outrun the simple bit of coaxial cable that spawned it.  The Internet, once hardwired into your home or office was going wireless and when Stephen Jobs introduced the iPhone the revolution was on.

Today, as wireless communication grows, televisions are becoming empty receptacles – mere screens that host video games, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix etc. etc.  More and more people are choosing what they watch– and when they watch it– without reference to what television stations or networks are broadcasting.  Soon, that 60-inch big screen will be a slave to your smartphone, networks will produce pay as you play content only, and local stations, if they’re smart, will return to what they do best– local news and information.

By the time Lucy and Desi celebrate their 70th anniversary of reruns, nobody’s going to remember how we used to watch them, and television, as our generation knew it, will be dead as disco.