Is this the Golden Age of TV, or just fool’s gold? THIS IS NOT A TEST #18 (transcript)

Published April 25, 2015 [Podcast link]

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Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys of all ages, greetings and welcome, it is I, mjp, Michael Phillips, your humble servant and dancing clown, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. I’m here again to regale you with thrilling tales from under the big top. It is, as you know, the greatest show on earth. So what are we waiting for? Let’s proceed.

Man I hate flying. And airports. And the TSA. They open my luggage every time I fly anywhere, and when I got to Las Vegas recently there was white powder all over my computer. What the hell is that? They swabbed my hands to test for explosives, then apparently they dusted my computer for who knows what. It’s such a broken system. Imagine, one guy one time tried to blow up a plane with shoe explosives – and it didn’t even work – but now a million people a day have to take of their shoes and belts and just about everything else to get onto a cramped plane and suffer through the sky to get to wherever.

Last year for some reason I got a TSA-Pre flight, both ways on a round trip. Which means I got to breeze through that short line that you look at wistfully from the regular line and I didn’t have to take off my shoes or belt – I didn’t even have to open up my carry on so they could x-ray the computer. It was glorious, I tell you, and also completely random, as I learned. The people traveling with me on one of those flights also got waved into the TSA-Pre line, and they didn’t even have the TSA-Pre boarding passes. So the whole thing baffles me. If you’re not going to look up everyone’s ass, then why look up anyone’s ass? Unless they’re, you know, shady or nervous or look like they’re from a bad place. You know which places I’m talking about.

Speaking of looking up your ass, more than 30 years ago, before any of these super patriotic security shenanigans, I was flying into O’Hare in Chicago from Paris, and the boys there pulled me out of the line and took me to a private spa room and actually did look up my ass. And they didn’t even buy me a drink first. I didn’t have dreadlocks at the time – which is a whole other thing that makes airports fun – I was just a shmoe in a leather jacket and sunglasses. The same thing happened – granted, without the butt violation – when I was flying to London out of LAX and the customs guy spotted a Tunisian stamp in my passport. Something about that Arabic writing. And that was long before all Americans hated all Arabs.

All of which is why I drove to Las Vegas a few years ago, for the annual conference that I go to. You can still put anything you want in your suitcase when you’re driving. At least for now. But all those hours in the car just to get to Las Vegas always drive me crazy, so I went back to the plane. It’s not worth it though, I gotta tell ya. You don’t even save time really, flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, by the time you factor in all the airport time and waiting for shuttles or cabs. I don’t think I’m going to the New Media Expo next year, but if for some strange reason I have to go, I’m driving, man. Just sit back, pin it to 75 or 80 miles an hour and fly on the ground. As God intended.

So we’re a few episodes into the final “season” of Mad Men, and already at the end of the episode they’re saying, “Only three episodes left!” Now the final season of Mad Men is short because AMC split the actual final season into two parts, the way they did with Breaking Bad. The seasons of most modern shows are already so short that splitting 12 or 13 episodes into two “seasons” feels like a hostile move on the part of the network. It’s kind of a fuck you to the viewers, and a sad ploy to charge more money to people who download the shows. I don’t pay for TV downloads, so I don’t care so much about that, but…

Well, that’s not entirely true – I paid for the final “season” of Breaking Bad, because Carol and I never watched it when it was current, and we wound up binge watching it right after the final half-season, which proved to be bad timing, since, when we got to the end of the free episodes on Netflix or Amazon or wherever we were watching it, we needed to see those last episodes right away! So I did pay for that. But aside from the blood-from-a-turnip concept of splitting the final season into two parts, the whole idea of television seasons has kind of gone by the wayside.

The reason television had seasons in the first place wasn’t because the calendar was changing, or production companies wanted to take a few months off, it was because the viewer ratings were released at certain times of the year, and all of the networks set up their production schedules around those releases. But even aside from that, a television show’s season used to spread over six months. 24 or 25 weeks was common, and some shows produced even more episodes than that. Now you get 8 or 12 and just as you’re getting into the groove with a show, it disappears for a year. Or a year and a half. So a show like The Sopranos, which was on for over eight years, only had 86 episodes. Compare that to a show like Northern Exposure, which was only on for four years, but produced 110 episodes. Or going further back, something like The Mary Tyler Moore show, which was on for less than six years but did 168 shows. Or M*A*S*H*, ten years, 256 shows. Yeah, I know: math, and you don’t care about those old shows. But the further back you go, the more episodes shows would produce.

Now I’m not saying that The Mary Tyler Moore show was as good as The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, but writing and producing a show takes a certain amount of time, no matter what the show is. Even if you compare hour long shows, we’re still getting half the seasons we used to get. Part of the reason that doesn’t matter to a lot of people is because they watch every TV show the way I watched Breaking Bad – which is the whole god damned thing over the course of two or three weeks. Or days, for some people who have more couch stamina than I do.

But there was something to be said for the rhythm a show could get in to over the course of six months and 24 hours. When you spread those 24 hours over two – or even three – years, a show doesn’t have the opportunity to create any kind of rhythm. When Mad Men starts up each new season, I have no idea what’s happening. I forgot who’s backstabbing who, or who knows Don isn’t Don. Too much time has passed. So it takes a few episodes to get back into the story, and by that time the season is almost over again. So they’re kind of forcing us to watch several seasons at a time, as most people do now. But you can’t dangle a show like Sons of Anarchy in front of me and expect me to wait six or seven years, until they’re finished with it, to watch it. That’s perverse and evil. So I watch the tiny little seasons and wait around for a year to see another tiny little season.

None of this matters in the scheme of things, but it is a symptom of a greater problem, and that is our lives and the rhythm that’s natural to being human. Everything is happening all at once now and it is robbing us of any kind of natural flow to things. Living somewhere like Los Angeles doesn’t help. I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Minnesota, but I’m still thrown off by the lack of seasonal change and the rhythm of nature. We don’t have that here, no matter what any natives may tell you. But all of my ancestors lived in climates with seasons, usually harsh and drastically different seasons, so there’s something inside of me that is waiting for those changes, but they just don’t come anymore.

And yes I know we are living in the new “golden age of television,” I know the shows these days are of higher quality than most of the shows in ye olden days. I watch enough of them to know they are high quality. It’s just the stingy schedules and long stretches of nothing between the stingy seasons. That detracts from the quality for me. It makes me care less about the show. If I have to wait until a series has run its course to enjoy it relatively uninterrupted – well, I don’t get the logic of that. Now Netflix and Amazon release entire seasons all at once, which seems good, but it only increases the wait between stingy seasons. All the waiting and the short seasons makes me think this golden age is nothing but fool’s gold. We think everything is getting better while it’s really getting more fragmented and spastic and impossible to follow.

Here’s a question for you: if you watch five seasons of some show over a long weekend, is it still a series or is it a 40 hour long movie? I guess that’s what’s throwing me off, the fact that the definition of TV series is changing. It’s no longer that thing that’s on for half the year and you have to sit down on Thursday night at 9 o’clock if you want to see it. I don’t miss the second part of that nostalgic memory, I can tell you that. I was an early and enthusiastic convert to home video recording, primitive as it was, because it freed me from that appointment to see the show. The DVR is an improvement on the VCR, as is streaming on demand, now that most of us have the bandwidth for it.

But I don’t know if those improvements in the scheduling side of the watching experience make up for the long drawn out ordeal its become to take in a show. Like I said, I lose the thread after 9 or 12 or 18 months, and it’s like starting over. I understand that these things have to come out, at least when they’re new, in a “season,” since no one can predict whether people are going to like something. Speaking of which, how do the cable networks decide that not enough people are watching a show and then cancel it? How many eyeballs do they need? It’s a captive audience, you’re already paying them a monthly fee. Why chop down quality shows before they’ve had their run? I’m looking at you, HBO, and I’m talking about things like Deadwood and Carnivale, good, interesting shows that were dropped after two seasons with no explanation. Deadwood was better than interesting, it was a masterpiece of language and violence. Carnivale was nominated for 15 Emmys and won five, but it was still dumped like yesterday’s fish heads and newspaper. Do people still wrap fish heads in newspaper? Does anyone still get the newspaper? Or clean their own fish? Probably not.

Anyway, maybe that’s why people wait until a series has run its course now to watch it. They don’t want to waste their time becoming invested in something that’s just going to disappear unexpectedly. No one knows anyway, these people at the networks don’t know if something is going to be accepted or popular. They don’t seem to know anything. They’ll yank things off the air after a few episodes, which doesn’t even give the people making the show any time to get their shit together or find a direction. I haven’t been the victim of that lately, but I know it still happens. It’s just another aspect of the impatience that everyone seems to have for everything. Sometimes it takes people a while to catch on to something. Especially if that something is new and different. If the networks throw something out there and for the first few weeks most people are saying, “What the hell is this?” they give up and go start something else.

But what that does is make it nearly impossible to do anything new. Twin Peaks had a lot of flaws, but it was interesting, and not everyone loved it or even tolerated it. If it came on today we’d probably only have the first eight episodes and it would just be a footnote. A David Lynch failure. They way it is now, no one will invest in you unless you’ve got something that they believe will be widely accepted immediately. Which makes it impossible to create any art or anything challenging or weird or new. It dumbs everything down. There’s no time to find an audience anymore. It’s like flipping a coin. And now I feel like I’m contradicting myself because I said there are a lot of good things happening, but those good things may be the exceptions that prove the rule. If you take television as a whole, those good shows are a drop in the bucket.

If I was smart I’d focus on one show and do a podcast about that. That’s what the successful podcasters do. But I’m not sure how anyone gets into a show enough to devote that much time to it. I don’t even know if this is a topic that I can say much about. I’m kind of running into a wall here. I might have thought there was more to say about this, but I’m not sure there is. But I committed to it and here we are.

The Internet is changing everything, and we still don’t know what it’s all changing in to yet. We’re in uncharted waters and the only thing to do is keep sailing forward or follow a certain star or something. Then we’ll get somewhere. It might not be where we thought we were going, but it’ll be somewhere.

This must be how people felt when the machine age started and no one knew where it would lead. Or when the telegraph poles were put up across the country and brought the news out West in a matter of seconds rather than days. I’ll bet people stood around the pickle barrels back then griping that things were better with the Pony Express. When communication was slower you had time to think about a response. That’s why everything that was written back then sounds so formal and intelligent. What are your emails going to look like in a hundred years? Of course we didn’t live as long back then, so I guess we didn’t get to do as much during a lifetime. But really, what’s there to do? We can travel to the other side of the world in half a day now, but then you get there and what? “Here I am on the other side of the world. I better Instagram this shit.”

Which isn’t really that different either. Mark Twain wrote a lot of great travel stories and he wrote about his fellow travelers was pretty brutal. He pretty much portrayed them as a pack of unsophisticated souvenir hunters. Carrying their own little stone carving chisels and hammers to chip off a piece of the pyramids or one of David’s toes. The ability to travel has brought us a lot of good and a lot of knowledge, but in the end most of us are unsophisticated souvenir hunters. I liked going to Europe the first couple times and standing in old buildings on old streets. But people are pretty much the same everywhere now, so going to Prague or Siberia is a lot like going to Costco on a Saturday afternoon.

How did we get from television to travel? I don’t know, but I appreciate you taking the trip with me. Doing this thing every week is weird, and it can’t always make sense. I warned you in episode number one that I would wander of track and we’re way off track now. So maybe we should just talk about pottery or old watches. Or giraffes. How weird are giraffes? Pretty fucking weird, admit it. And dogs? We live with dogs, and we take them for granted, but did you ever sit there and really look at a dog? They’re weird! They’re wild animals but we let them up onto the couch and into our beds. We’re petting them and they’re probably thinking about murdering us. You wouldn’t let a mountain lion up onto the couch. Well, maybe you would. You’d probably invite The Sons of Anarchy to your baby shower. You have some questionable judgement sometimes, I gotta tell ya. I know that because you’re listening to this.

But it’s all the same, isn’t it? Walking the dog, traveling, watching TV? It’s all just something to do to keep us from thinking about getting old and dying. Most of us don’t work at really difficult or dangerous jobs anymore, and we don’t spend half the day cooking dinner or milking goats, so we have a lot of time. You do have a lot of time. I know you think you’re really busy, but you’re not. You’re busy with all the unimportant shit we fill our lives with. All those things that trick us into believing we’re doing something, when really most of us aren’t doing anything. Not you – you’re up to some important shit, I know. The history books will reflect that. But the rest of us, not so much.

I happen to be of the opinion though that we don’t have to do much. In fact we don’t have to do anything. Our ancestors worked and suffered and died to free us up, and we’re too stupid to take advantage of that. We’re too dumb to sit on the steps and watch what’s happening on the street for two hours, or talk to that savage, murderous dog that lives in the house. We think that’s a waste of time. But to me, if that’s all you do, sit and watch and talk to the dog, you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. And your life is just as important as a Getty or a Rockefeller or Kardashian. In fact you’ll probably have more insight than any of those people, and you’ll definitely be a lot more relaxed, which is important. Maybe the most important thing. To be relaxed. When you’re relaxed you’re ready for anything. But if you’re lucky, nothing will happen.

Okay, that’s enough philosophy and lunacy for now. There’s plenty more where that came from, don’t worry. More of something, anyway. In fact, more is only a week away. Same bat time, same bat channel.


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