Series Finale   (2016Mar06)

Sunday, March 06, 2016                                          10:43 PM

I’ve just watched the final episode of “Downton Abbey”. I didn’t watch the first two seasons because it didn’t hit me right, but something clicked about the third season and I enjoyed it regularly from that point. The hub-bub about its ending is eyebrow-lifting, but only by being so unprecedented—not because it doesn’t deserve the fanfare. The show was exceptional in being dramatic without violence, and intimate without exploitation—and, of course, in the intelligence of the writing.

But as I come to terms with the termination of one of my regular pleasures, it brought sharply to mind the fact that too many of my life’s signposts have been fictional ones. I can remember how lost I felt when “The West Wing” went off the air—it had comforted me, not only by idealizing the presidency, but by suggesting that the Clinton administration was a sort of subtle second-coming of Camelot—an idealistic president with the guts to stand by his ethical guns. I was naïve, yes—but I was far more optimistic—happier in my lack of cynicism. In the end, it was good “The West Wing” ended before Bush W. and 9/11—so everything happens for a reason, I guess.

Then there was Jon Stewart’s exit from the Daily Show—I’m still getting over that one. I like Trevor Noah alright, but Jon Stewart’s absence is akin, in my mind, to Johnny Carson’s retirement—but worse, because Stewart was a champion of social justice, behind all the jokes—and in these times of brawling presidential candidates, he’s sorely missed. A long-time, late-night companion has left forever—and I don’t like change in even the little things.

Not all of the TV I’ve spent a lifetime staring at has been fiction. The news coverage of the Viet Nam war and the brutality against Civil Rights protesters was all too factual. My third grade class was marched to a sudden assembly one day to watch coverage of JFK’s assassination. I was thirteen the summer I saw Armstrong step onto the Moon in real time. And I watched heartbroken while the twin towers disintegrated fifteen years ago.

But most of it has been fiction—though, to be fair, we should acknowledge that the effort of making a great TV series, comedy or drama, is very real—as was my satisfaction in having a regular time each week when I could expect to be taken out of myself. The novelty of “The Flintstones”, the then-daring subject matter of “Hill Street Blues”, the sophistication of “Law & Order”, the easy hilarity of “Seinfeld”—there were so many shows—and while some, like “Law & Order”, metastasized into over-familiarity, and others ended with perfect timing, they all had their time, when their regular weekly appearance on my TV screen was looked forward to with relish.

I’ve never watched a reality TV show—what the producers save on screen-writers, the audience pays for in brain cells, it seems to me—but maybe I’m just old-fashioned. And I’ve never gone in for the talent shows, either—to make a naked competition out of artistic expression is to deny the respect normally granted a performer on stage—even a high school drama group doesn’t have to put up with that kind of judgmental nonsense. Cruelty may create drama—but what kind of drama? The entertainment business has enough rejection and judgment, without putting it on stage.

Therefore, what I consider traditional TV is only to be found in bits and pieces. But I’ve made the situation worse—I feel like I’ve outgrown sitcoms—I’d rather watch a half-hour of straight stand-up than the contortions of contrived circumstance and strained gags forced on the sitcom format. I’ll grudgingly watch “Big Bang Theory” or “Two Broke Girls”—exceptionally well-done comedies, but only out of lack of options and a desperate need to watch something, anything—I’m too jaded by the format not to see the gags from a mile off.

Plus, I’ve sworn off any dramatic show that centers on a murder investigation or a hospital ER, for mental health reasons—I’ve seen so many through the decades, and one day it occurred to me that these should not be my regular subject matter—even fictionally. That disqualifies a surprising number of shows—“Rizzoli and Isles”, for instance, is the kind of show I would normally watch, but now I object to the underlying theme being ‘someone always kills someone’—that doesn’t happen every day—not in my life, surely—so why would I invite it into my entertainment? Shows like “Rizzoli and Isles” or “Bones” have plenty of light-hearted comradery, comic relief, and beautiful women—but at some point, to me, this seemed like it trivialized actual murder.

Yes, drama requires conflict and there is nothing so basic as a murder mystery for conflict—but today’s TV is very real—and shown in Hi-Def. In fact, the slow-mo re-enactments on “CSI”—hyper-real details of bullet impacts and such—when the show first debuted, were a large factor in my swearing off murder-based programs. The hyper-reality of the set-dressings on “ER”, likewise, took a part in forming my desire to avoid being grossed out by my favorite TV shows. We are what we watch—and we want to watch that, if I may attempt a witticism.

I think the main trouble comes from being older than everyone else—well not everyone, but certainly all the young, starry-eyed writers, actors and directors in the entertainment business—and they’re certainly not targeting my demographic. Neither do I want to only watch shows with people my age in them—my grandmother used to do that, and it made me sad—Peter Falk’s and Dick Van Dyke’s murder mysteries were her favorite series—it was like programming for a rest home.

When I was young I gobbled up every book I could find, I watched every movie and TV show, I listened to every piece of new music—and I did perhaps too good a job of it. I’m quite familiar with things creative—I can look at a painting and name the artist, hear a few bars and name the composer, see a few seconds of film and name the title, principal actors, and how far into the movie or program it is. My younger self might have been proud of all this accrued erudition, but it leaves me starved for novelty.

I don’t get out much, but I get ‘in’ more than most everybody—I watch and read (and write) and listen and play all day, every day—and I’m thinking as hard as I can the whole time—if it were physical effort, I’d be an Adonis—if it made money, I’d be a Croesus. As it is, life is far less glorious, though I don’t personally find it so. My lack of outward success is partly due to unalterable events, and partly a willful rejection of what others may see as ambition. Had my life gone easier I might have achieved more, but I might have understood less. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m proud of what I’ve done with my life, but I believe I’ve made the best of it, and I’m satisfied with that, by and large—though I really wish I could still draw. I guess being unable to change means I’m doing what I was meant to do—and if not, I’m going to see it that way, anyhow. I lack choices in that department.

Stewart’s Impending Sign-Off   (2015Jul02)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015                                                11:59 PM


Wow, I guess I’m a creature of habit—the time-stamp is just one minute off of last night’s time-stamp. But that figures—lately, all work stops for me at 11 PM. I don’t want to miss any of Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show hostings. He’s off in august and that’s like five minutes from now in old-guy time. I’ve enjoyed the political satire of the Daily Show since Craig Kilbourn, i.e. since day one—‘fake news’ was an idea whose time had come, and Claire and I loved to watch it.

But Jon Stewart made it more than just a joke–he turned it into a public service. For seventeen years he’s made us laugh while informing—and while castigating those who deserved it. I’m going to feel a little lost without Jon Stewart saying all the things we all wish we could say to power and to pretense. The foibles and evasions of today’s corporate and political powerbrokers are bad enough—why should they escape without even having to pay the minimal price of public exposure to well-deserved ridicule? I hope Stewart’s replacement is up to filling those shoes.

Yet I have been wondering of late whether Jon Stewart isn’t too much of a good thing. His prey has adapted to the constant lampooning—and worse, we the audience have perhaps taken a Daily Show ‘public flogging’ as sufficient response to politicians who we’d be better off voting against than laughing at.

But that’s the Catch-22 of the Daily Show. It’s the only news program that doesn’t cater to the egos and the agendas of its subjects—making it the straightest-talking infotainment in the whole news line-up. You really can’t not watch it. Fortunately, one of Stewart’s old ‘correspondents’, John Oliver, with Last Week Tonight on HBO, has refined the format’s technique to the point of activism—many of John Oliver’s hashtag-coaxing broadcasts have been followed by headlines the next day—displaying the power of combining Oliver’s immense influence and the might of the Internet.

I’m not really too worried about what comes after the Jon Stewart era. Ever since Will Rogers, Americans have had an appetite for an acidic but humorous observer of the human condition as it manifests itself in current events and personalities. That’s now a vacuum that will always be filled by someone somehow. But Jon Stewart has set the bar pretty darn high.

Now, as for today’s improv video—today was one of those lazy days where I left in some sight-reading without identifying the pieces properly. Some days I just can’t be bothered. But I’ll tell you now, so you’ll know: in the middle of the improv, I play a piano transcription of the aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from ‘Messiah’ by G. F. Handel. After the improv ends, I play two more pieces: the “Evening Prayer” theme from Englebert Humperdinck’s opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ –and- the “Largo” from G. F. Handel’s opera ‘Xerxes’. I won’t win any prizes for the sight-reading, but it’s not completely terrible. And the improv came out real nice, I thought. Tell me what you think.