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.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Borrowers of the night

After a week when sanity lost and the San Francisco Giants won, I look forward to the debut of Conan O'Brien's show on TBS in a few hours. I actually enjoyed the promos during the baseball playoffs, especially the Cool Hand Luke parody, and the blimp was a nicely excessive touch. I hope the shows are equally inspired. Late night TV is not so much a Vast Wasteland as a Superfund site. It's not a good time to be a registered insomniac.

The Big Four on the traditional networks are, to put it kindly, inadequate. They all follow the formula created by Jack Paar: opening monologue with topical "jokes," backchat with bandleader, scripted attempts at comedy, interview with one or two celebrities who have a movie or a CD to flog, and -- the one variant -- a usually lousy musical act. Letterman is so bored you can actually see his eyes glaze over as he announces the Top Ten. Leno is still going out in the street ("Jay Walking," get it?) to find several Angelenos to mock because they can't name the Canadian prime minister; risky stuff. Every time I turn Fallon on he's got audience members on stage doing stupid things, so I turn it off. (I don't bother with Kimmel because he doesn't bother with me, or anyone else over thirty.)

By far the most depressing experience -- and really, who needs to be more depressed in the middle of the night? -- is The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. I keep watching in hope of learning why Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker called him "brilliant." She may have been referring to his memoir, An American On Purpose, and I concur. It's the work of an engaging, intriguing mind in a body which has had some extraordinary experiences with alcohol and drugs. Almost none of this makes it onto the air.

Watching Ferguson for a week is like being the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day -- the same six jokes, the same tired innuendo, prop comedy, weak impersonations, stock phrases and antediluvian Bill Clinton jokes every night. Is it "brilliant" to do a tedious show in order to make fun of tedious shows? Is this what they mean by "post-modern"? Who cares? It's painful because Ferguson can do so much more, and occasionally does. The seven or eight minutes he allotted to Cornel West last Friday outclassed the rest of the week. He's a superior interviewer when a guest engages him. Instead of positioning himself to replace Letterman one day, he has a chance to become Charlie Rose without the vanity. He did a wonderful show with Stephen Fry without a studio audience, and he won a Peabody Award for interviewing Desmond Tutu. He needs to do more of both.

Studio audiences are the bane of all these shows. There must be a PET scanner in the lobby which identifies potential audience members who have higher brain function, so they can be weeded out. The lucky ones who are seated scream and bellow for every weak-ass gag the host utters and greet every guest like a returning hostage. At least Ferguson acknowledges that a "warm-up comedian" (which must be the TV equivalent of the guy who sweeps up elephant shit in the circus) has brought them to this lunatic pitch. The others just bask. Some of Johnny Carson's funniest moments occurred when a joke fell flat, nobody laughed, and he had to work his way out of the silence. Every time Letterman says "Oh Paul," his audience soil the seats.

When Craig Ferguson's father died, he presented a memorial show that honored him and delved into the nature of grief, and ended with Scottish music. It was unexpected, moving, and completely his own, an event that lifted TV above itself for an hour. Not every show can or should be like that, but they don't have to paint-by-numbers. I hope Ferguson, who claims CBS is barely aware of him anyway, will unplug the robot, give the puppets to a preschool, take it as read that America is aware of his prodigious junk, stop making fun of gays and old people, and re-invent late-night television. It needs re-inventing. And if I see that goddam pantomime horse again, I swear I'm selling the TV.

Conan review on, oh, Thursday. I'll give him a few days to get into it.