Sunday, April 26, 2009

TV: The Death of Television

Last night, CBS aired a concert by Barbra Streisand and NBC offered a police drama. On the face of it, the two may appear to have little connection, but they both go to the Death of Television. Not just broadcast but cable as well.

We're not talking about the quality of either show yet (we'll get to that), right now we're just focused on the genre themselves and how they speak not of an expanding world but a constricting one.

A legendary performer in concert and a police drama. Some might have assumed it was a weekend from the sixties. However, in the sixties, you might have found a variety series or a sitcom.

Last week, Harris Interactive released a Harris Poll on television. The poll (PDF format warning, click here) had some interesting findings. 2,344 American adults were polled. The breakdown goes like this for the top 15 shows: 4 sitcoms, 4 criminal or law drama (we're counting 24 here, others might group it as action), 3 medical drams, 2 animated programs, 1 action/fantasy (Lost) and 1 sci-fi (Star Trek). Asked their favorite genre, 62% said sitcoms. (The next highest response, at 39%, was "Drama.") You might think that would mean the networks were working overtime to deliver sitcoms this fall, but you'd be wrong.

Why should it be about what the audience wants? The networks don't even consider themselves, so why bother with audiences? For those confused by the last statement, a sitcom has a better chance at syndication. More and more shows are owned or co-owned by the networks. It is in their financial interest to make sitcoms because syndication residuals can help them through difficult economic times. Sitcoms have syndicated better for decades.

Since CBS first got the idea to put I Love Lucy on during the day (while new episodes were still broadcasting once a week at night), sitcoms have done well in syndication. They have, in fact, tended to dominate. And even so-so sitcoms syndicate better than most hour long shows. For example, when was the last time you saw Emergency or Trapper John, Adam 12 or Barnaby Jones, Medical Center or LA Law? All were hits in their days. Big hits. They're not big hits in syndication and never were. Even a show like Hill St. Blues, a quality production, isn't a syndicated resource the way I Love Lucy, Friends or even The Nanny is. As a general rule, the medical drama doesn't do well in syndication. Nor do prime time soap operas (that was true of Peyton Place and true later of Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place and all the rest). But you can bet most people can find a rerun of Family Ties this weekend. Meredith Baxter is one of the stars of that sitcom. She also starred in one of the 70s finest dramas: Family. That program never made any waves in syndication. By the mid-seventies, the syndication habits were obvious: The Brady Bunch, That Girl, Gilligan's Island, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show . . . Sitcoms dominated. People can always use a laugh and stations love programming in half-hour segments.

A friend who was writing for various sitcoms in the nineties called us last week, excited over the poll, convinced this would wake the networks up. We pointed out that even their own pocketbooks hadn't forced them to wake up so what could a poll do?

We wished that wasn't the case. We took turns listening to the writer's laments and agreed with all of them. The Office didn't make the top 15 shows in the Harris Poll. It's one of the most gas-bagged over shows of this decade. It only found modest ratings success when it started emphasizing Pam and Jim. A decade of 'quirks' passed off as humor. A decade of no studio audiences and flat performances from actors who could have fed on the energy of a studio audience. We didn't disagree with a thing we were hearing. We just didn't think the poll was going to make any difference.

There were four sitcoms on the list. Friends and Seinfeld being shows from the 90s. M*A*S*H also made the list. Only one sitcom airing new episodes made the list. Want to guess what it was? Two and a Half Men. When everything else falls apart, they have their studio audience. Kath & Kim didn't have a studio audience and it was a flat and static as every other single-camera, non-studio audience 'sitcom.' As flat, static and unfunny.

The poll got a lot of attention from sitcom writers, producers and performers. As the week went on, we felt we were getting calls from every one who'd ever had anything to do with a sitcom, even just a walk-on.

Which brought us to Saturday and a producer complaining about how the networks couldn't even air new episodes on Saturdays these days. He had to go because he was watching the concert -- "I know, I know, I've seen it before but it's Barbra."

Barbra Streisand. TV made her an international star. She was already a recording star and already wowing them on Broadway in her second huge hit but TV is where most Americans encountered her. On talk shows and variety shows. In 1965, she had her own variety special: My Name Is Barbra. She fought for (and won, she had creative control) the right to break from all the other variety shows back then. Who were the guest stars? No guest stars. There was a theme: The life cycle of a woman.

This wasn't like that at all. Streisand: Live In Concert was just Streisand performing before a concert audience. Sort of like one of those Sinatra specials, Old Blue Eyes Is Back.

And Barbra did look, in the term trademarked to her, gorgeous. The big surprise was the voice. Not that it was still intact. That's proven every time Columbia releases the latest Barbra album. She's got a range like no other. And we weren't surprised by her performance of "The Way We Were" which found her stroking the notes in a warmer way, giving it a new shading. But when she broke out Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "When The Sun Comes Out" and delivered it with an intensity that may have surpassed her original recording (on 1963's The Second Barbra Streisand Album), we were stunned.

A lot is made of Richard Perry updating Barbra's style (Stony End) and while he deserves credit for what he accomplished, you only have to listen to "When The Sun Comes Out" to grasp Barbra could sing rock anytime she wanted. She was never a 'mild' singer. And we talked about how that style of singing was something John Phillips had to stay on Cass Elliot's case to get in "Words Of Love" and "I Call Your Name." How Cass, on her own, preferred a softer sound (as she would pursue in her solo career) and wondered what would life have been like if Cass had been cast in I Can Get It For You Wholesale (she often told the tale of her audition for Barbra's part) and Streisand had emerged in the sixties as part of the folk-rock music scene?

It was a concert special so it falls or rises on the talents of the singer. No surprise, Streisand: Live In Concert was a success and something we returned to in conversations throughout the night. (For the record, next Tuesday Streisand The Concerts is released on 3 DVDs. More information can be found at Barbra Streisand's website.) We'd planned to catch a few moments and had no intention of noting it but we ended up sitting through the whole thing and enjoying it tremendously.

Whatever CBS followed it with had us screaming "Switch!" (No, not the old Robert Wagner TV show.) And someone flipped it to NBC where Southland was just starting. We got two scripts and the first episode on DVD from a friend with the show and took a pass on reviewing it. But here it was on a Saturday night (the program airs regularly on Thursdays) and it was (a) so awful and (b) so typical that there was no way to continue ignoring it.

Those stumbling across the show on Saturday night were forgiven if they mistook it for a pilot. They weren't seeing the first episode, they were seeing the third. But every episode of the show plays out like a pilot. Maybe if they'd bothered to create likable characters they wouldn't have to do origin stories every installment?

These are the worst characters. The worst. Regina King's been given the "typical TV Black cop" role but she's a woman so (a) that's 'progress' and (b) her eyes well up a lot. It's a huge disservice to King (a very talented actress). She can't even modulate the character because she's always stuck playing the female Morgan Freeman.

"Well at least they made the role a female, that's a twist." You may find yourself saying that, especially the longer you watch. Ben McKenzie (alleged star and alleged actor) tries to move from flavor of the month six years ago to actor. It really doesn't work. You grasp that all the more as you notice how many key moments for his character (also named Ben) find the actor shot from behind or with the camera following another performer. If only they had acting doubles, Ben McKenzie could have an acclaimed career.

Instead he's playing the rookie cop. You've seen it all before. Sometimes Rick Schroeder plays the part, sometimes a Saved By The Bell actor. Sometimes it's Charlie Sheen on the big screen. Sometimes it's the then-achingly beautiful Kent McCord. Or maybe Michael Ontkean. We could go like this forever. And watching Ben and his partner John (played by Michael Cudlitz) go on and on through the same scenes you've seen forever, you'll find yourself ranking the actors who played rookie and veteran cop duos and who played them better. By the time you realize you've even ranked John Schuck and Richard B. Shull (Holmes & Yo-Yo) higher, you'll grasp how difficult it is to find any duo that did a worse job.

Sadly, that's when you'll notice Cudlitz says "friggin" and also words that are bleeped. If you have John's sewer mouth, you really don't say "friggin" except possibly if you've been busted down to crossing guard and have to speak to children. That's when you'll notice that not only does the duo play the storyline worse than all who have come before, they play it over and over. "I'm a real cop, you're just slumming!" Neither come off as real cops.

C. Thomas Howell doesn't come off any more like a cop than any other actor on the show but he is watchable. He's not committed to the script and is far more likely to grab your eye with motion. He's got a way of entering a scene or feeling his way around a scene physically that really demonstrate what a waste this show is. Watch him fire a gun, watch him roll around on the bed, watch him move excitedly from one foot to the next. But then comes the time where he has to mouth the bad dialogue. It's sinking everyone but it's most noticeable with Howell because of how well he and TV are clicking. He's not been this free on the big screen. But he's weighted down by the dialogue.

And that's when you notice that bleeps and "friggin" aside, they all talk the same. Every damn character on the show speaks in the same damn voice. You could take any line and give it to another character. It's all written the same. And it's all written as if the show's title is actually Soapland. Apparently Guiding Light's writers have all found new jobs.

This is the most on-the-nose, the most obvious dialogue and it happens over and over and over, from the mouth of every character. This is marketed as a gritty and raw look at police work but it plays as though you've been locked into a group therapy session for an hour. You keep thinking it's going to end but it never does. 'A drug dealer was attacking my mother while I was a kid and he knocked out two of my teeth.' 'Oh yeah? Well my father's in prison for rape.' It just never, ever ends. And regardless of their academic or economic backgrounds, they all speak the same way, in the same dull sentences. This is 2009's worst written series.

And how fitting that it airs as TV increasingly makes arguments for no longer being entertaining -- forget for not being relevant. It was a Saturday night and you had bad cop dramas. As if that wasn't bad enough, they were all repeats of shows that air at other times during the week day. And the Streisand special had us noting the fact that not only were sitcoms hard to find, variety is long gone. Normally we wouldn't think about that too much. Carol Burnett defined the medium and when she grew tired of doing it, that was that. Except that we're on the road every week.

There are nights we finish speaking out against the illegal war and hit the hotel around 11:30 at night. You flip the channels to find something to watch for a few minutes. And it seems like every one of the last few weeks we've encountered some PBS station in the midst of a pledge drive. We thought about all the specials we've seen on PBS in the last years about variety shows. Including one on Carol Burnett, of course. But we've seen a 'history' of variety specials and we've seen their history of The Lawrence Welk Show (not at all any more interesting than the show itself). And then we thought about that Smothers Brothers special and how it brought out the pompous nature of every PBS beggar we saw. They would all insist (in different words) that this was the power of PBS.

This was?

A two hour special on the censorship battles Tom and Dick Smothers had with CBS and the way CBS retaliated by cancelling the program. That's the power of PBS?

That's not power, that's actually embarrassing. What that program tells you is that when both presidents pushing that illegal war (LBJ and Nixon) are dead and gone and when a documentary filmmaker films something, PBS will air it. The show was cancelled in 1969. "The power of PBS" is that thirty-nine or forty years later (we started seeing that special in 2008 on some PBS stations), that illegal war can be addressed semi-honestly via an entertainment program as long as the focus is on music and comedy.

Tom and Dick are on tour. We mention that because they're wonderful performers, well worth seeing. We also mention it because PBS beggars did as well. Usually offering two tickets to whenever the brothers came to town and usually telling viewers, "Imagine what they have to say about what's going on today!" Yeah, image that.

Imagine it because you won't see it on TV. And though the PBS beggar would probably nod once we said that, a pompous nod with a thin smirk, feeling really proud of themselves, point of fact, you don't see it on PBS either.

It's not just the networks, it's PBS as well.

We first started seeing the Smothers Brothers special as the election approached so it's been well over a half-a- year now. And we heard the pitches over and over about what PBS does and the quality programming it brings you and blah, blah, blah. You never really grasp how much sameness there is to PBS until you travel the country and catch all the various "member stations." You start to realize there's more variety at your average McDonald's franchise than on PBS.

And you start to grasp how long it's been since PBS was even remotely culturally relevant.

But it really takes those look backs at the "Golden Age of TV" (the fifties) and those programs on Carol Burnett or the Smothers Brothers -- with the pompous remarks by the on-air beggars -- to drive home how little PBS does.

And it could do so much more besides give second lives to Brit-coms and Brit-amas.

Where is PBS' variety show?

That's not a joke nor is it something PBS couldn't do. We were talking to NPR friends last week about their concerts and asking what radio programs videotape them for podcasts? An increasing number. Now sometimes the acts are big names, sometimes they're emerging, but every Friday at noon EST, NPR has a live concert. Two or three songs could be culled from that each week to present the music faction. They could bring a comic to do a stand up bit. They could do a cutting from a play.

What we're describing so far is Omnibus which ran for nine years and predates the creation of PBS. But this program did have an underwriter: The Ford Foundation. It's hard to believe such a show wouldn't have that today. And PBS could do quite a bit more than just Omnibus. They could put a news segment in it of weekly highlights (headlines) and even do an investigative news segment. They could make it a real mix if they wanted.

But they're not doing anything. And when we were discussing this with NPR friends, they pointed out that if footage of the NPR concerts were used, for example, that would get the word out on the concerts and the various NPR stations that broadcast them (they can be streamed online from anywhere). It would be a way for NPR and PBS to work together and pool resources at a time when PBS is facing some cutbacks.

PBS could do a variety show very easily and very inexpensively. They would also find many corporate sponsors willing to underwrite it. But instead of doing that, they want to repeatedly bemoan the death of the variety show and repeatedly highlight variety shows no longer on the air. The Death of Television is another 'new' PBS music special which is nothing but one oldies concert (doo-wop or folk) cut up into segments to make three specials. Where all the performers are so congealed, they appear to have film over their eyes.

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