Monthly archives: September 2006
Six Degrees Generating No Heat
I like Six Degrees. I wish it weren't tanking in the rankings (third at 10 p.m. Thursdays).
It feels almost like Lost without the island - we're getting all the backstories before they get on the plane together. And it works for me.
ABC Entertainment executive vice president Jeff Bader said the network plans to stick with the program, according to Scott Collins of the Times. I don't know if it will help, but I think it deserves a shot in a different time slot before hope is lost.
Ugly Betty might be the best new show of the season - that I've seen so far, anyway. The tone is spot on: not too silly, not too serious. Some of the characters' behavior is frivolous, but Betty (America Ferrera) is simultaneously grounded and endearing. We'll have to see where it goes from here, but it was a promising debut (in the ratings as well, according to Rick Kissell of Variety).
In today's 10 Actors to Watch section in Variety, Chad Gervich has a short feature on Ferrera. I contributed a quick look at Lizzy Caplan of The Class.
(I understand that the above links are subscription-required ... still figuring out what to do about that as far as Screen Jam goes.)
In May, I chatted online about the 2005-06 TV season with Stuart Levine, Senior Editor for the features section of Variety. Stu and I are now in much closer proximity, because this week, after 4 1/2 years as Senior Writer/Editor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I began working at Variety as an Associate Editor in features - which means I'll spend my daylight hours doing much of what Stu does, only with less expertise.
Anyway, this move, combined with this month's debut of Screen Jam and the recent start to the 2006-07 small screen season (at least, my screen at home is still small - your screen may be bigger than my house, for all I know), seemed to make this an ideal time to reconnect with Stu. Again, hope you enjoy it.
Jon: Okay, we're about 25 feet from each other, but I'm sitting with my back to you, communicating by e-mail. All for the sake of the fan(s) out there. Let's start with your overall take on the new season. What's your standout show - or has that show not yet premiered?
Stu: Tough to say if I would call one a standout. There are several I like, including Studio 60 (which, as you previously stated on the blog, has some problems but Sorkin's woes are better than a lot of other stuff), The Nine, Kidnapped and Shark. Others that have intrigued me are Friday Night Lights and Heroes, the only show to be a big ratings winner so far.
On the comedy side, I'm giving second and third looks to 30 Rock, The Class and Knights of Prosperity. All those, plus my usual viewing pleasures coming back for another season, have my TiVo working OT.
Jon: Kidnapped is shaping up to be one of the season's bigger disappointments both critically and commercially. Conversely, the buzz about Heroes has caught me off-guard - I'm going to try to catch that when it reruns on SciFi later this week. The Class is warm and fuzzy but with a gooey center, and I may wean myself off that very soon. The show has too many on-the-nose moments, and in particular, I really don't see what mileage they're getting out of the flamboyantly gay husband (Sam Harris).
Six Degrees, I thought, had a nice debut and could do better once it gets a handle on how to deal with its gimmick of people meeting and passing each other by. But it dropped a ton of its Grey's Anatomy lead-in. I don't know - maybe this J.J. Abrams show will get extra rope.
Stu: I thought Kidnapped had some real potential and was much better than Fox's Vanished, both of which centered on missing persons. If the ratings for Kidnapped continue to fall, it'll be interesting to see how long NBC will keep it on the air. During the summer at the TV Critics tour, all the network presidents were asked about expecting viewer loyalty for these serialized shows. If they don't do well, will the networks pull them off the air before the ending is ever revealed ... meaning the viewers invested all that time for nothing? How will a network be able to ask audiences, with a straight face, to watch its next serialized show next time around if they cheated viewers the first time around?
As for Six Degrees, I think it's one of the biggest disappointments of the season. It tries to play like a cool indie movie with lots of indie film actors - Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen, Hope Davis - but the storylines seem so abstract and never come together. Maybe they will by episode 11, but I know I won't be around that long to find out. And the fact it comes from J.J. Abrams also hurts. Although Lost is fantastic, both Six Degrees and What About Brian, which amazingly made it back for season two, have been major misfires for J.J.
Jon: You've already offered Knights of Prosperity as a promising candidate among shows yet to premiere. What else have you previewed? Ugly Betty, debuting tonight, got some late-summer buzz, but something tells me now that it might be getting overhyped.
Stu: Yeah, that seems to be the show ABC is relying upon for a big number, and it could be a hit, but Thursdays are so tough. I can't remember even during NBC's heyday with Hill Street, L.A. Law, Cosby, Cheers and Seinfeld when Thursday has been so packed with lots of good shows on all the different networks.
Betty will be going up against Survivor not what it once was but still a player My Name Is Earl, Emmy winner The Office and Smallville, which has a small but loyal fan base. At 9, there's Grey's Anatomy and CSI and at 10, Shark and ER, which started great in its 14th season far from life support.
I also think Friday Night Lights is also pretty good (Tuesdays at 8 on NBC), but sports-themed shows often have a hard time staying on the air. I think the last great primetime sports drama was The White Shadow (1978-81). Where's Coolidge when you need him?
Jon: Hopefully not still working as an orderly at St. Eligius. Let's talk some more about returning shows before we wrap up. You and I still disagree on Office - I just think that show is so rich, but from what I can tell, you're immune to its charms. I think the season premiere showed it hasn't lost any momentum. The latest Earl, on the other hand, was a little flat for me. House had a good season premiere and a couple of the follow-ups have really gotten to me, though the Joel Grey episode was not one of its best.
As for Grey's Anatomy, that show may be reaching the point where I don't know if I could recognize a good episode - I can't seem to stop picking out the flaws. Chandra Wilson's character has turned inside out - she was once biting with hidden vulnerability, now she's vulnerable with only occasional bite. The tri-crush on Meredith is becoming more implausible. (And again, I recommend Jack on Men in Trees as an alternative to Dr. McDreamy.) The best parts of the season premiere were Sandra Oh and recurring guest Loretta Devine as Adele, Dr. Webber's wife.
Stu: I'm with you on Grey's. I championed the show early on but the end of last season was so over the top I lost a lot of interest. It's still good, for the most part, but it's teetering on being just a ridiculous soap opera at this point. And I can't stand Sandra Oh's character. She's always whining about something and is never happy. What Dr. Burke sees in her, I have no idea but I would recommend he dump her sooner rather than later.
I'm excited about the new season of Lost and am enjoying House too. And one of these years I should start watching 24, so maybe when it returns in January I'll finally join the rest of the world.
Off topic for a moment, but I have to say the two most exciting TV events of the year for me are the Sunday at the Masters and the final table of the World Series of Poker on ESPN. I watched the latter this morning (it's still buzzing around in my head) and was riveted. I'm a bit of a poker junkie so I really can't get enough of it.
And if the pennant race is anything like last night, when I was switching between the Dodgers and Phillies games, I'll never catch up on my regular primetime programming on TiVo. But, if the Dodgers can hold on, I'd take that happy diversion and catch up later.
Jon: Pennant-race/postseason baseball and testing out the new fall season crushes me every year. What can I say - I'm a sucker for the stuff. Thanks for the chat - we'll have to do it again soon.
And ... Crash
For a while, it looked promising. Episode 2 of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got off its high horse and got down and dirty, with people acting like real indviduals of various functionality instead of self-righteous missionaries. There were some flat moments, but they were effulgently countered by some genuinely rousing ones, and somewhat to my surprise, I can see as clear as day an Emmy nomination drifting toward one Matthew Perry.
And then it came. The show within the show began. The cold open that was to end all cold opens, the one that we are told kicked off the rockinest dress rehearsal ever. And what we find is flattest piece of junk since, well, the last episode of Saturday Night Live you saw.
I admired the spirit behind the idea to parody "The Major General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance, the idea to try to go high-class to win back the faith of an audience in purgatory. But the parody was awful, just awful. A couple of cheap jokes in three minutes of colorless singing, singing that was neither good nor amusingly bad.
And although the idea was portrayed as a bolt of inspired lightning, I can't help thinking that it's exactly what Saturday Night Live would have done - and has done, over and over again, sometimes well, sometimes not.
At the end of the number, Danny (Bradley Whitford) is happy. Matt (Perry) is concerned - but only because he has to start writing the next show right away. As far as the cold opening goes, they couldn't be more satisfied.
Meanwhile, on any realistic level, 90 percent of the NBS Studio 60 critics and audiences spent the aftermath inventing new synonyms for failure to describe Matt and Danny's return to the show.
A great follow to this episode would be for that reaction to come out - for Danny and Matt's initial instincts to be proven wrong and for them to deal with the ramifications of that. It would make their eventual redemption that much more hard-fought and earned.
But I don't see that coming. Studio 60 showrunner Aaron Sorkin seems to believe his team has reinvented the wheel, when it has actually been run over by it.
Perry and Whitford will keep me watching into Week Three, but NBC's Studio 60 has problems. Perhaps the most serious is its ongoing insistence that Harriet (Sarah Paulson) is this generation's Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks or who have you. Harriet's religious faith is supposed to be a counterpoint to her intrinsic hilarity, but the woman couldn't be more white-bread as a comedienne. Matt tries to tell us that she has many fans, but few who understand her true greatness, and maybe that's supposed to buy us time to appeciate her. In the meantime, she's never funny, and her ensemble-leading performance in the cold open was without any charisma of any kind. I can see Harriet perhaps filling the Jane Curtin mold, which would be dandy enough, but unlike Curtin, it would be the writers completely carrying her.
Deconstruct Studio 60, and you have yourself the tragedy of the decline of Saturday Night Live. You have a show that wants to be great, yearns to be great, bleeds to be great, but just doesn't know how.
Hoping Against Hope
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of my attitude toward television is that when I watch a new show, I almost root for it to be bad, because I watch so much TV already that I would gladly not commit to anything more. I like being able to knock a show off my list and knowing I'll have that much more of my life to myself.
'Til Death got perhaps my quickest hook ever - it wasn't more than a minute into the show or even through the first scene when I saw Joely Fisher trying to get Brad Garrett to look at some bad cut on her foot or something, and I decided I am not interested in what this show has to offer.
At the same time, though, television still gets to me. When I see something original when so much has been done before, when a show really gets me to think, when something comes on the screen and speaks to me as if it's been listening to what's inside my head or knows my own worries before I know them myself... what can I tell you? I like being heard that way.
Not a Good Sign
Of Ted Danson's new role as Dr. Bill Hoffman on ABC's Help Me Help You, Brian Lowry of Variety writes that it is "initially less interesting than his Becker role."
Update: Robert Lloyd of the Times has an upbeat review, saying that even if the show doesn't hit him in the heart, it does a nice number in the head.
... it's funny in its own way, smarter than most TV comedies and has a terrific cast all of which makes me wonder why I'm not more moved by it. (At the same time, I'm not unamused, nor uninterested.) Although I wouldn't necessarily recommend "Help Me Help You" in a grab-you-by-the-sleeve Ancient Mariner sort of way, I would certainly recommend checking it out..
Not Quite Feeling Kidnapped
It's as if these producers never had a child go missing before.
The series premiere of Kidnapped didn't deliver on tone, and it certainly didn't deliver on empathy.
In the wooden Conrad Cain, rich-beyond-reckoning father of the kidnapped Leopold Cain (Will Denton), Timothy Hutton gives us the least sympathetic family victim you've probably seen in a while. I suppose that makes for an interesting complication, but it puts the pressure on the rest of the family to make us care.
Denton wears his victimhood well, though in a mostly invisible part. Dana Delany, who is generally so crush-worthy that once, when I caught site of her in my rear-view mirror on Ventura Boulevard, I had fleeting thoughts of stopping short to cause an accident that would allow me to meet her, is saddled with ineffectual wife status as Ellie Cain. Toward the end of the pilot, she gets one of those speeches, rife with meaning, but completely divorced from the gut-searing pain one feels when a child so much as chips a tooth.
As always in premiere season, it's good to give a show the chance to develop layers. It's completely plausible that the characters played by Hutton and Delany will develop those layers, but it's disappointing to have to wait. There was little element of escapism, particularly in Hutton's case. I always felt so conscious that it was Hutton up there on screen. (The eminently avoidable link to his career-defining Ordinary People role, through the first name of his character, doesn't help matters.)
Some of the supporting cast delivered. I've been watching Mykelti Williamson since he was billing himself as Mykel T. Williamson in his Hill Street Blues period, but I didn't have any trouble locking into his character of the bodyguard, Virgil. Williamson, along with Delroy Lindo as they-pull-me-back-in FBI agent Latimer King, commit to their roles with such forcefulness that they don't allow you to have stray thoughts about the man behind the role for any length of time. That's the difference between their performances and Hutton's.
On the other hand, at first I enjoyed Jeremy Sisto as mercenary rescuer Mr. Knapp (I guess first you're kidnapped, then you're Knapped), but as time passed, I kept waiting and wishing for the Billy Chenowith inside him to bust out. Knapp's a little straightforward. And for crying out loud, can the Cains get on a first-name basis with him and stop calling him "Mr. Knapp" already? The guy's a 21st-century rogue - you wonder if he showers more than twice a week - and they're talking to him like it's Double Indemnity.
Overall, Kidnapped lacked the punch that should be automatic for a show taking on this plotline. Even if the storyline becomes more compelling, it's that emptiness that could undermine it for good.
A Solid Third-Season Premiere for The Office
Moments before the third season of The Office began, I realized I would have to dial down my expectations. The second season ended on such a high note, and rewatching episodes over the summer (something I rarely do with shows these days) only made me more appreciative of its brilliance.
Watching the Office webisodes online over the summer, however, served as a reminder of the show's fallibility. To be sure, the webisodes were never meant to be a full-fledged version of the show on any level, but for the most part, I think one would have to say they were nothing more than an acceptable diversion or time-kill. They were forgettable.
Nevertheless, televised Season 3 opened with a solid episode - neither a classic nor a letdown, but one that again showed the series' sophistication in attacking tricky subjects.
The Jim-Pam-Roy storyline took the next step, and once more we find that The Office can plot a love story as well as any show on television. For the first time, we saw a side of Roy, the vulnerable side, that helped explain Pam's interest in him in the first place - addressing perhaps the show's greatest weakness right off the bat. Jim has handled his current fate with an endearing maturity without losing his sense of humor, and of course, you still just want to cry for Pam, or at least get her the therapy she needs. Well done.
On the work front, The Office took on a plot about Oscar coming (or being pushed out) of the closet, and for all the sweetness of Jim and Pam, reminded us that the show will always be about incompetent people and uncomfortable situations. In the face of the possibility that the show might try to reel in Michael in hopes of making him more tolerable to a wider audience, The Office presented him at perhaps his most distasteful - and at the same time, revealed even more of his inner torture and confusion. Steve Carell, by now we know, is a real actor disguised as a silly comedian, and Oscar Nunez (Oscar) offered outstanding work as well.
Does any show get more comedy out of pain, or vice versa? It's really something.
Thursday Night TV Chat
I still don't know if there's an audience at Screen Jam for this yet, but here's an open thread for season premieres of The Office, Grey's Anatomy, My Name Is Earl, etc.
You may talk about any show as it airs or after; I won't be able to participate right away but might join in later.
Or, talk about anything in the arts or pop culture that you want ...
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was more than a little self-aware about its ambitions, with its implicit and explicit references to Paddy Chayevsky's Network during Monday's premiere.
Unfortunately, beyond advocating that we all should do our best to rise above banality - which is like me telling my almost-4-year-old to be good - the show barely had anything constructive to offer. Mostly, what I was left with was to watch actors that I generally like, performing at a level I generally respect, playing characters I generally had little reason to care about.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself - fear being defined as a life bereft of pointed late-night sketch comedy.
Steven Bochco's underrated 2005 series Over There depicted soldiers at war, and whether or not you agreed with the mission, they had profound individual struggles you could empathize with. Studio 60 launched a mission that you'd have to be a misanthrope not to support, fought mostly by soldiers whose fates will not cause you a moment's worry one way or another. Studio 60 glorifies the battle and the battlefield, but the heroes are for the most part mercenaries.
You don't need to sell me on the worth of producing good television, but what evidence do we have from the pilot that Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) are the ones to do it? We keep being told that Matt and Danny have written a hilarious (if potentially offensive) four-minute late-night comedy sketch, and that Jordan is intrigued by it. We're told that it's so great, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) wants it to air even if she's offended by it.
And yet, showrunner Aaron Sorkin and friends don't even have the courage to show us a hint of the sketch in the pilot - and by that I don't mean that they're afraid of offending, but rather that they are either afraid that the sketch won't live up to its billing, or that they need to hold it back as a carrot for the viewers.
At no moment in its pilot does Studio 60 present any actual evidence that these folks are as good as they say they are. It's all hearsay, all unimpeached testimony. Meanwhile, in their world, ambitious, cutthroat, love-'em-or-hate-'em shows like The Daily Show don't exist. Except for Matt and Danny, it's all bad, nothing good.
Down the road, if our heroes prove they aren't hacks, I guess that's great. But for now, I've got nothing but this: a conscious (bordering on shameless) Network ripoff, debates over television standards and practices that numerous shows like The Larry Sanders Show and Sorkin's own Sports Night fully - and I mean fully - explored half a decade or more ago, a lot of tough talk, solid acting and high production values. Yes, I'll take Studio 60 over The Apprentice and thank it for challenging us to do better, for challenging us to think. But what it didn't offer was anything close to what it was calling for: a meaningful use of the medium.
I remember finising every episode of Sports Night and wishing for a half-hour more. After 60 minutes of Studio 60, I wished for a half-hour less.
Maybe the show will find itself moving forward. The best parts of Studio 60 showed characters wrestling with their own values: Harriet trying to live a religious life in a sectarian world, Cal (Timothy Busfield) struggling to be simulatenously loyal to great television and to the welfare of his career and family. These are the moments that give one hope - when someone doesn't have all the answers.
But the apparent leads on the ensemble - Jordan, Danny and Matt - they don't wrestle. Oh, Danny has a cocaine problem, Jordan's a young woman in the boys' club and Matt is, I don't know, real jangly, but there's no confusion about how they should act. So who cares? Not me, not until you show me that they are heroes instead of just insisting that they are.
The sooner Studio 60 complicates its mission - the sooner that it can use its setting to explore more universal conflicts within ourselves - the sooner it can flourish. We'll take it on faith that television should be good. Now, show us that it can be.
Class Cliff Notes
CBS' The Class gets a gentleman's C. A few nice moments within, and I'll give it a second chance - maybe over time it could be a sleeper as it finds its footing - but I don't have a lot of confidence it'll be a worthwhile half-hour.
* * *
Make sure to read Mark Donahue's Western Homes for a great recap of Monday's programming. Because of Monday's Dodger game and other plans this week, I probably won't see Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for a few days.
Studio 60 Open Chat
A chat for the series premiere. Warning to West Coast viewers: Story details may be discussed.
Any other entertainment talk is welcome here as well.
Open Chats at Screen Jam - Spoiler Alert
Open chats will be a feature at Screen Jam, but with time zones, tapes and TiVo affecting everyone's viewing habits, we'll want to make sure we don't spoil everyone's viewing.
A Little Bit of Northern Exposure, A Little Bit of Cheers, A Little Bit of Grey's Anatomy, and a Little Bit of Work To Be Done
Men in Trees will never hold an antler to Northern Exposure as far as shows centered around outsiders in Alaska go. In fact, the comparison alone compels the question of whether every hour in Elmo, Alaska wouldn't be better spent in neighboring (?) Cicely.
Trees takes little advantage of its setting other than to give its characters some quirks - the exteriors they've provided us so far aren't even all that spectacular, and if it weren't for the producers making a big deal of the perils of cell phone reception, the show could almost be set in "Central Perk." Unlike Northern Exposure, which was perhaps television's greatest philosophical and metaphysical series, regularly pondering the great questions of life on both a daily and epic level, Trees is contentedly a relationship show. Nothing wrong with that, but people should just be guarded about making comparisons between the two based on their locales.
Nevertheless, Trees does have a genial quality to it without being saccharine. Without the laughs but with the characters, it evokes the early days of Cheers as much as anything - with the show's point of view emanating from the Diane character.
In this case, that character is the tongue-trippingly named Marin Frist, played by Anne Heche. Heche, who has been calmly coming back from her crazy days in the tabloids with a series of small-screen character roles, shows herself capable of handling the lead. She sometimes pops up a distracting nasal Katharine Hepburn delivery, and is also given a few dreadful lines to deliver or sight gags to pull off, such as the mindless slapstick opening scene to the series' second episode. But some of those sloppier moments seem to be a function of the expository torture that almost every series endures at its outset, and when things settle down, Heche can be very relatable and even sweet. It's fair to say that Joel Fleischman got some getting used to, too.
The show's biggest strength, though, might be its male characters. If Trees gets any viewership at all, James Tupper (Jack Slattery) will turn Patrick Dempsey's Dr. McDreamy from Grey's Anatomy into Dr. McCatnap. Jack is first-season-Cheers Sam Malone with intelligence - though not without baggage. Jack owns every scene he's in, including those with Marin (it's no contest) and is just self-aware enough to make it work without venturing out of character. It's a fine line, but Slattery pulls it off and immediately leaps to potentially being the coolest guy on TV.
Derek Richardson channels Steve Zahn in the role of Patrick, but in a seemingly guileless way that's easy to take. (He's got more than a little John Burns from Taxi.) Late of ER, Abraham Benrubi (Ben) gets a role that he truly deserves and shines in. And the indomitable John Amos goes miles from his recent West Wing big honcho role into the small-time pilot, Buzz, whose character runs the risk of being only as smart as the producers want him to be in a given scene, but is still a joy to watch every moment he's on screen.
Conversely, the female supporting characters are struggling. Annie (Emily Bergl) is inoffensive if a little too daffy, and Theresa (Sarah Strange) is quietly intriguing. (It was also nice to see Cynthia Stevenson again in a guest role that should recur.) Unfortunately, Jane, played by Seana Koefoed, is a drag on the series - ostensibly there to provide some sort of urban counterpoint but only succeeding in delivering banality. Jane's one chance at shining, when she had to dispose of Marin's unused wedding cake, was undermined by a wishy-washy tag to the second episode in which she kept a layer of the cake to eat in her lonely apartment. It was all too believable; it was predictable and pointless. Speaking of which, Sara (Suleka Matthew) is drawn straight from the book, To Serve a Hooker with a Heart of Gold. A television series provides the opportunity to bend these cookie cutters into some original shapes, but whether they do it soon enough to satisfy television audiences remains to be seen.
Should ratings become an issue, the obvious answer for Trees is a pairing with Grey's Anatomy - even if the latter is a rerun. In several ways, Trees is already the superior show - and given the backlash that almost seems inevitable for Grey's, ABC would be wise to expose any fans of Meredith and Derek to Marin and Jack. The latter two are a lot less annoying and look like they'll be more fun.
Caution: Hard Hat Zone
Welcome to Screen Jam.
As readers of Dodger Thoughts may know, television, movies and pop culture in general often infiltrates the site. That's not necessarily a bad thing, nnot at all, but Screen Jam now gives me a formal place to explore those topics - though at the outset, the writing will be decidedly informal.
When Dodger Thoughts was born, it had only a couple of readers, so I was able to figure out what I wanted to do without much worry about how it would be perceived. Screen Jam will be discovered at least a bit more quickly, so I just want to warn you at the outset that it's still being developed. Posts may be short and sweet more often at first. There may be more stream of consciousness writing and less that is definitive. I don't want to censor myself too much at the outset - though of course, I'll try not to put up garbage either.
So anyway, there may be some good stuff here, and I hope that amid all this building, you find something to enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.
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The Tease of Depth in Kidnapped
If the moving tone of Kidnapped on NBC is like the promo I watched tonight, that gives me all the hope in the world for the show.
In the Corners of The Office
An underrated aspect of The Office: the bitter hatred between Michael and Toby. From the 2005-06 season finale:
"Why are you the way that you are? .... I hate, so much, about the way that you choose to be."
"I'm not going to lie to you. It felt really good to take money from Michael. I'm going to chase that feeling."
In addition, there's Jim as the 21st-century Alex Reeger from Taxi: "That'll make me feel better about not having dreams."
Happy Days Were There, Then
Cammie McGovern, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford who has written Eye Contact and The Art of Seeing, is one of the few literary types whom I have seen confess that her formative years were, well, formed as much by television as anything else. From Stanford Magazine:
... Then my sister cleared her throat, announced that it was time for "speeches." My stomach ice-skated a little when I saw her holding a Mickey Mouse notebook that bore my pre-adolescent handwriting: Diarysummer, 1974. After a sentimental introduction praising my book, she said she thought it might be "illuminating" to hear some of my "earlier work." She read aloud: "Dear Diary, I thought you might be interested in an hour-by-hour description of what a young writer-to-be's day is like."
Much to my mounting horror, this writer-to-be spends every day parked in front of the TV. Morning hours present themselves not as an opportunity to read a book, but as a choice between The $10,000 Pyramid and Family Feud. In the afternoon, the options pick up: there's Mary Tyler Moore with an exclamation point; Bob Newhart, with a period. Heading toward dinnertime, we get the novel pleasure of a complete sentence. "Today is Thursday which is good because that means Laverne and Shirley."
I'm sure I read as a child because I'll occasionally stumble on some lost treasure in the children's library Wednesday Witch, for instance and my heart will soften as I recollect it: the cover art, the witch riding her vacuum cleaner, the tiny cat traveling to school in a lunchbox. ... These days, when questioned by students, my stock answer is that I was a bookish girl who read more often than I went out with friends. New evidence sheds light on a thing I was doing more than either of these. So now I have to wonder: who was I as a child?
After my sister finishes, her friends reassure me that they did much the same thingwatched dreadful shows on black-and-white TVs with bad reception and no horizontal hold. It's a small comfort that such a diary entry isn't an exclusively American possibility, but what does that say about any of us?
Perhaps that TV was a child's escape, a way to pass time until life got a little better, with more interesting horizons. Maybe it wasn't the worst way one could travel through the brutalizing years of early adolescence.
As a child, I read new books and I read the same books over and over again, I watched new TV shows and movies as well as the same ones over and over again, I played with friends, I played by myself.
I just had more time back then. I think there was time to do just about everything.
And that's why watching television wasn't such a tragedy. Yeah, it could be a timewaster, but you could also learn something, you could also feel something. Having a binding around your words doesn't guarantee they're more meaningful than having them spoken on screen.
Justice, No Peace
Justice (Fox, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.) is gimmicky and shallow, a paycheck purgatory for some fine actors (Eamonn Walker of Oz and Othello in particular) who deserve better. Walker would be enough to make me tune in again, but as the networks' prime time debuts unfold, don't know that I'll find the time. Pilots are always rough to form an opinion of, but the first case didn't provide much incentive for a return look.
Victor Garber's talent is pretty unimpeachable, but he sure gets a lot of smarmy roles.
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I love Audrey Hepburn ... I'm just not sure about that new Gap commercial with her dancing - it's at once a pleasure and pretty creepy.
Definitely makes an impression, though.
Where Hill Street Blues is kingand Lady Luck is queen
by Jon Weisman
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.