Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22

I don't understand how John Keats wrote all that poetry while dying of tuberculosis. I've spent the last two weeks with a wracking cough that left me unable to concentrate on so much as a crossword puzzle. So I have nothing profound (or otherwise) to say about this anniversary, the 9/11 of my generation. I see nothing of a commemorative nature on the cable channels that will program absolutely anything and call it history -- not even "JFK and Nostradamus: The Hidden Secret Facts and Theories!" Although the abomination known as The Biography Channel has a two-hour study called "Mad Mel: The Rise and Fall of a Hollywood Icon." Pass.

I see "The Daily Show" is reruns this week, which must be confusing for the people who rely on it as their primary news source. I don't do that, of course; I get all my information from "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me" on NPR weekends. It has limericks.

I watch television. I know there must be a support group somewhere, but you have to want to recover. I put it on late at night and just let it burble on, and it messes up my head but no worse than alcohol or drugs would. I refuse to be ashamed of it any more.

I try to find the quality stuff. Yesterday, C-SPAN (whose motto is "One camera was good enough for Charlie Chaplin, and it's good enough for us") had the Miami Book Fair. In normal circumstances BookTV doesn't deign to cover novels, but these festivals sneak it in: Jonathan Franzen and George W. Bush promoted their newest works of fiction. Then PBS had a play about John Lennon starring Christopher Eccleston. The writing was tedious -- apparently all Lennon did around 1970 was yell at people and whine for his daddy -- and the usually impeccable Eccleston had a surprisingly hard time sustaining a Liverpool accent. Tonight it was "Moguls and Movie Stars" Part 4, which added little to my store of knowledge but was very enjoyable, as was the chance to see Cagney in two classics, Footlight Parade and The Public Enemy. "By a Waterfall" is still the greatest, wettest wet dream in all of movie musicals, and I can't get enough of "Shanghai Lil." When they're dancing on the bar, Cagney evidently decides that if Ruby Keeler is going to stare at her feet, he will, too. Priceless. And now we're up to the scene where Tom Powers is measured for a suit by a stereotypically gay salesman -- who needs Craig Ferguson?

So much for quality. Mainly I'm content with syndicated police shows. Basically they're all the same show. A crime is committed, then solved. There are more surprises in opera seria. The newest layer of cliche is provided by The Nemesis. The star always has a nemesis, or an unhealed wound from the past, or both. On Crossing Jordan, Jordan Kavanagh's mother was murdered when she was ten, which explains why she can never commit to anything or follow orders from a superior, and can only be employed by the world's most indulgent medical examiner. On CSI:NY, Mac Taylor's wife died in the World Trade Center, which is why he looks perpetually constipated. On Law & Order: SVU, Olivia Benson's mother -- do I have to go on? It's what Orson Welles called "dollar-book Freud," the one detail that unlocks a whole life ("Rosebud!"), at least in fiction. I don't remember this kind of thing in the more distant past. If Theo Kojak had an aunt who was in the country illegally, or Frank Furillo had a cousin in the Mafia, or Joe Friday was molested as a child, we never had to hear about it.

The Nemesis is an even bigger pain in the ass, usually a serial killer who was put away by our hero. Like all serial killers in fiction, he has an unmeasurably high IQ, a love of classical music, and a Houdini-like ability to escape from anyplace. In reality, of course, the serial killer thrives because he is Mr. Cellophane. He works at a dead-end job, lives alone, and gets caught by accident because the police are looking for Hannibal Lector. They watch TV, too.



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