Sunday, December 28, 2008

TV: 2008, the lows and really lows

2008 in television can be summed up as the year when entertainment TV forgot how to entertain and so-called public affairs programs fancied themselves entertainment offerings.


Starting with that which is supposed to entertain . . .

NBC and CBS seemed in a race to see who could implode quicker.

Fall 2007 to spring 2008 found NBC finally stumbling across an hour long program they could pair with their hit Heroes. Chuck was everything entertainment TV is supposed to be and so much more. A real network would have grasped what they had. NBC is not a real network and that was obvious before the news that it was considering downgrading itself a la Fox and the CW with two hours of prime time programming a week night (the third hour said to be going to Jay Leno's upcoming talk show). It was obvious before 30 Rock did what it does so well each fall -- open 'big' (by comparison) and crater ever after.

NBC's ignorance was on full display as Chuck got benched for the summer. A new show, one garnering favorable reviews and excitement, needs the summer to consolidate a following. If it was necessary for NBC to air all that 'reality' trash it stunk up the airwaves with all summer long, they still could have and should have carved out a spot for Chuck.

What networks have forgotten is the behavior of TV viewers. They have to know a show is there. If Chuck brought in only 3% of prime time viewers during the summer, it still would have sent the message: Monday nights, first hour prime time, NBC, Chuck.

The series would have brought in a larger percentage of viewers because it's the sort that plays well in re-runs and, in fact, summer 2008 could have (and should have) been used by NBC to shore up Chuck. Instead, they took it off the schedule then tossed it back on with it's second season debut and couldn't understand why Chuck was having to build its audience all over again. It had to do that because NBC sent them packing.

Had Chuck aired over the summer, audiences could have picked back up with the first new episode and Heroes would have had a solid lead-in. Instead, Chuck and Heroes struggled in the ratings and NBC's attempt to star Christian Slater in a complex maybe-this-is-real-but-maybe-it-isn't drama ended each Monday night by going under after the network had managed to tread water for the two previous hours.

Let's talk Heroes. First, Rebecca writes about it each week when it airs a new episode. You can go through her archives and her feelings usually match the percentage of the audience the show garnered that week. The problems with this fall's episodes can be summed up: "That said, this was the set-up episode and the earnest conflict of a brother who does and one who waits will get stale real quick if too many more episodes return to that in scene after scene." It got stale real quick as Peter mooned and Nathan did. Rebecca noted the quoted observation, from our review of the show back in September 2006. Yeah, this fall offered a repeat season of new-episodes which borrowed the worst plot device of the first season.

As NBC suits sweat bullets, let's make it real simple for them: Nathan and Peter can be in conflict. That's allowed. However, Peter cannot be weaker than Nathan. It won't work for more than one episode. The audience likes both characters and may aspire to Nathan (when he's on his best behavior) but they identify with Peter. When you make Peter powerless, you've rendered the audience powerless and they do not like that one bit.

While NBC at least sweats over their mistakes (even when having trouble identifying them), CBS takes pride in them. Which is why it ordered more episodes for Worst Week. Which is why it's not at all troubled by its continued dependence on the CSI franchise. This spring NBC's one-time ratings powerhouse ER concludes (March 12th) after fifteen years. CSI started its ninth season last October. Up until season 12, ER managed to stay in the top twenty (until season 11, it was in the top ten). You don't need to whisper that around CBS execs, they're confident that they and the CSI franchise are exceptions and exceptional. Forgive them because if they couldn't stuff their shorts with bravado, they'd cause even more laughter in the locker room.

That's why they're high on NCIS, thrilled that its proven something. But they don't seem to grasp what the ratings uptake for the show has actually demonstrated. First (NBC, pay attention), it demonstrates that a show left on the air year round in the same slot can become a comfort food for viewers. Second, the ratings increase demonstrates that when Michael Weatherly's forced to drop from Raymond Burr-esque to a 'fighting weight,' more vieweres will drop by.

All the Docker Boy Water Cooler Chat this fall refused to note Weatherly's weight loss. Possbily because the Water Cooler Set's own Docker Boys prefer every male look like a TV Dad.

TV Dads is what journalists looked like throughout 2008 so let's go there. Boxy like a Dodge Caravan and about as slow-witted, the TV Dad basks in his uselessness and could anything better describe alleged journalists populating the chat & chews?

Starting in November 2007, you could chart the professional journalists -- allegedly professional ones -- who repeatedly promised that Barack Obama was about to be examined by the media. Always an excuse for why it had happened before and always the same 'any minute now' assertion. They were never questioned on that because who would question them? Gwen Ifill? The woman who visibly recoiled when The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny offered in November 2007 that Hillary Clinton might stage a "comeback" (no primaries or caucuses had taken place at that point) in New Hampshire? No, of course not Gwen.

Gwen who hissed "that woman" of Hillary on air at the end of March? Gwen who hid from the Presidential Debate Commission that she has a book due out next month mentioning Barack by name?

Or Gwen, as we like to think of her, who screwed the pooch and ensured she'd never move on over to NBC. Her little stunt ensured (not disclosing the book to the debate commission) she would not move over to Meet The Press. Screwed the pooch? Please, screwed, French-kissed and 69-ed with it.

In a year that saw the two major parties run War Hawks for the presidency, a working press might, if nothing else, prepare the people. We don't have a working press, we have a Gwen Ifill press.

If you doubt that, 2008's "most consequential" story is, according to Gwen, Barack's election. Is she attempting to say it's all down hill from here on out?

Has someone being elected president in November ever before been hailed as the "most consequential" story of a year with twelve months?

It's a Gwen Ifill press. A press that's all about the flash and never about the realities.

Which is why she offered Barack being elected as the story of 2008 and toss out her picks for the other three "big stories:" the financial meltdown (yes, Gwen picked that as second to an election last month but, hey, she's got a really poorly written book to pimp), "challenges abroad" and "the legacy" of the current Bully Boy of the United States.

Iraq, gas baggery on this week's Washington Weak, was reduced to passing sentences. Asides. Marveling over how it wasn't an issue. As if the people set the issues?

Are we really supposed to believe that? This is a good time to pop over to Democracy Sometimes and note the stunt Amy Goodman repeatedly pulled week after week. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton supporters would be included every blue moon while each episode found Goody whoring it for Barack. When supporters for Barack, Hillary and John were all present, what did Goody do over and over?

She asked Edwards supporters (Danny Glover, for example) to justify Edwards vote for the 2002 authorization for war on Iraq and she asked Hillary supporters (Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta) that question. No Barack supporter was ever asked about his support for the Iraq War.

You may say, "Barack didn't vote!" You are correct. He wasn't in the US Senate in 2002. He did, however, vote to support and fund the illegal war once elected. Yet Goodman never asked his supporters about that.

Barack's fabled 'judgment' depended upon hype and pointing to his actual, albeit slight, voting record would harsh the mellow.

Iraq was an issue . . . when you had a crowded field of candidates for their party's nomination. As that changed, Iraq was dropped as an issue. Tom Hayden had his snit-fit on July 4, 2008 and suddenly wanted to call out Barack's War Hawk nature and then, like a fixed puppy, he limped off. That snit fit was pretty much it. Iraq was never again an issue.

You can blame the public but they weren't the ones. The press decided to focus on the money race (as usual) and polls (because they're easy) and forgot to do their damn job -- week after week.

"I have lived long enough and seen enough to retain confidence in America and the good judgment of her people, but I have also learned that nothing is forever," explains Face The Nation host Bob Schieffer in this year's Bob Schieffer's America. If you were expecting to find anything that heeds that warning on PBS, you were searching in vain. But the reality was that none of the public affairs programs even aspired towards actual informing the public with one exception: CBS' Face The Nation. The show long ago needed to go to an hour. We'd loudly advocate that; however, we fear CBS would find some way to muck up the expansion. Of all the network and cable choices, Face The Nation remained the sole stop if you were seeking information. You might not get 101 tidbits tossed out at you but that's due to the fact that what Schieffer and company decided to explore, they explored in depth.

By contrast, Gwen explained this week that she decided to be a reporter because she wanted "sit on history's front row." Yes, that does sound like her face is pressed desperately against the wrong side of the glass.

The wrong side is what Saturday Night Live finally ended up on this month. It happened with the December 13th episode when Amy Poehler left the program -- in fact, it took place during her farewell.

Fred Arminsen portrayed New York governor David Paterson on Weekend Update. Fred played the buffoon like a buffoon. If that was all that happened, he might have gotten away with it because, while certain jokes did appear crass, it would have moved quickly.

However, Amy and Fred were two of the closest members in the cast. This was her farewell and Fred, like the clown who can't honestly deal with sadness, prolonged her goodbye by vamping (ad-libbing) and returning to the set to block the camera (as Paterson) and to stumble around. On Fred's part, it was a difficult goodbye.

But people just knew, they just knew!, Saturday Night Live was making fun of the disabled. (Paterson is blind.) When we watched the broadcast, it was obvious what was taking place and we considered mentioning it. But we noticed other elements we could cover -- elements that could have been called out but were not.

Before we could do that a host of idiots began weighing in on Fred's actions. Paterson, organizations, a website that loves to rip us off, you name it.

And as we watched this firestorm over one damn skit (clearly misunderstood by those who may or may not have caught it), we had to keep putting our hands under our jaws to avoid standing around in open mouthed disbelief.

One skit? One skit results in all of that? And SNL's sexism on parade for every damn month of the year never resulted in a peep?

Governor Paterson is an idiot. Apparently those who do not follow New York politics are unaware of it. They seem to see him as a big teddy bear to wrap their arms around.

Last week, Paterson returned from his trip to Iraq. Why did a governor need to go to Iraq? Answer: He didn't. He wanted some publicity. He should have received it when he returned from his fly-over to shoot his mouth off with the claim that Iraq was now 90% a democracy. Had the current Bully Boy of the United States issued that claim, he would have been ridiculed by Jon Stewart and the rest of the peanut crowd. Paterson's prone to making these idiotic remarks publicly over and over. He is a sitting governor. He can be called out for them. What Saturday Night Live did was send up his stupidity.

And people wanted to object to that?

We watched week after week as Hillary was portrayed as a bitch and power-mad, all because she was a woman. John Edwards was not mocked even after it was learned that he'd lied about an affair he'd begun while campaigning for the 2008 presidential nomination, he wasn't mocked for his ambition or hubris. But Amy could be brought out as Hillary all fall to make jokes about those power-hungry women. This wasn't one skit. This wasn't one joke. This was a pattern of sexism. And when Tina Fey began playing Governor Sarah Palin on SNL, the pattern only became more obvious. Fey continues to insist that there was nothing sexist in her portrayal despite the fact that she sexualized Palin with little stunts like having her 'Palin' hike up her skirt to flash leg.

The portrayals of Hillary and Sarah went straight to SNL's sexism (specifically Seth Meyers -- even Tina's begun fingering him as the culprit) but not a word, not a complaint. Take the crap ass site that rips us off. Week after week, they'd repost the SNL videos of Hillary or Sarah and go on about how funny those skits were. They never objected. They never complained about the sexism. Then the Paterson skit takes place and it's time to reflect?

Then it's time to reflect?

SNL may or may not have gotten tacky with some of the jokes in that skit. But the point was that David Paterson is an a buffoon. And he is that. Due to the fact that Amy was finishing her last Weekend Update and leaving the show, Fred couldn't bring himself to stay offstage and came back on the set, in camera view, doing little equivalents of a boy pulling a girl's hair. It was not intended to be taken seriously and, if you could divorce it from Paterson, was actually kind of touching (even to cold-hearted us) because it did go to the bond that does exist between Fred and Amy.

Throughout 2008, we waited and waited for a serious exploration of sexism. It never took place. Katie Couric, Bonnie Erbe, Cokie Roberts, Dee Dee Myers and others in the media deserve strong credit for repeatedly attempting to initiate such a conversation. We applaud their efforts. But it was in the reaction to one skit on Saturday Night Live that really drove home how little women mattered in 2008. Week after week, SNL found a way to insist something was wrong with women who hold public office (that includes their Nancy Pelosi portrayal) but this pattern never led to outrage. It was all 'funnin'. One skit of the little-known (outside of New York state) governor and it's time for outrage. It's time for denunciations.

In a year when the bulk of entertainment programs couldn't entertain and the majority of public affairs programs couldn't inform, a public who repeatedly allowed themselves to be manipulated probably got exactly what they deserved. If it wasn't what they deserved, it was what they begged for.
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