Monday, July 31, 2006

MTV at 25: Generational mood swing

As MTV gradually spread among cable systems in the early '80s, it was a wonderland for kids of my generation. The variety far surpassed anything available on radio at the time -- you could see Eurhythmics, Dio, Rod Stewart and Rush in the same hour. The VJs were easygoing and likable, and they made you feel like part of the community. The videos, often shot on a budget that might not buy you the gold on display in three frames of a typical video today, were quirky and fun. Late-night weekend fare included concerts, 120 Minutes and eventually The Young Ones.

As MTV celebrates its 25th -- or doesn't, since such nostalgia might remind viewers that the network is older than they are -- the channel has changed. The old joke is that they no longer play music, as told in a song that shouldn't be popular by MTV's logic, Bowling for Soup's 1985.

Beneath the surface is a change that I find sadder. Gone are the comfortable days of Martha Quinn casually chatting with a musician in a cozy studio that looked like a fun hangout. Today, it's mostly reality TV, which is pretty much the opposite of a friendly face talking about music. (No, I don't watch it much, but I can read a TV schedule.)

I can't blame MTV for wanting to stay young, I suppose, though I never minded seeing J.J. Jackson on the air even though he easily had 30-40 years on me. But does young necessarily mean snarky and self-absorbed?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Video killed my evening plans

You've seen it on hundreds of blogs -- a list of 100 great books or 100 great movies, with the blogger commenting on the ones he or she has or has not seen or read.

I don't have that kind of attention span, so I'm going to do the same thing with Stylus' list of 100 music videos. And with the exception of Fake Plastic Trees, I'm not going to watch the ones I haven't seen yet -- at least, not now. Sorry, but there's only so much procrastinating I can do here.

Besides, this'll be a good comment on the videos of my generation and slightly beyond. Remember -- I'm old.

98. Cure, Lovesong -- It's OK, but I don't see anything that special about it.

96. Robert Palmer, Addicted to Love -- Memorable image, but that doesn't make it good. I'm sorry, but I don't find pasty-faced expressionless women attractive. And then Palmer kept repeating it in other videos.

95. Billy Joel, Pressure -- Great song, despite Stylus' protests, but the video is kind of silly.

94. David Bowie and Bing Crosby, Little Drummer Boy -- Yes, I'd love to know the backstory on this. It actually sounds pretty good, but the awkward video just makes you scream "WTF?"

88. Nine Inch Nails, Closer -- Yawn. Brings back memories of all the kids on Prodigy's message boards saying this was a great make-out song because he says "I wanna f--- you like an animal." Our generation really needed a Barry White.

87. Duran Duran, Hungry Like the Wolf -- I actually kind of preferred Rio, but this one is unforgettable.

83. Peter Gabriel, Shock the Monkey -- One of the first videos I ever saw. At least, one of the first videos I *remember* seeing, just before I got MTV. I've always interpreted it as a man whose moral dilemma spirals into a fantasy fueled by paranoia and incomplete notions of spirituality. No?

81. Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees -- Addressed here, and for all the great Radiohead videos on this list, they forgot High and Dry. The image of the woman in the diner with a resigned look on her face singing along to "screaming out" is one of those wonderful multilayered expressions artists often claim to be doing and are not.

77. Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit -- Made you watch long enough to realize how brilliant the song was. So started a brief but powerful career.

71. Lisa Loeb, Stay (I Missed You) -- We get it. Lisa Loeb wears glasses, but that makes her cool. It didn't work for me in high school, and I don't buy the double-standard.

62. Duran Duran, Girls on Film -- This video wouldn't load for me, which is too bad -- you rarely see the uncensored version. It's the sort of voyeurism that so strange and creepy that kids can't help but look, even if it means they're turned off from actual sex for another couple of years. So perhaps this video should be seen as some sort of public service in the fight against teen pregnancy and STDs.

61. Michael Jackson, Billie Jean -- I didn't appreciate it at the time, but you don't see this kind of storytelling in videos any more.

59. Judas Priest, Breaking the Law -- Considering how over-the-top metal videos would get later in the decade, this one is kind of refreshing.

57. Bjork, Human Behavior -- This one's brilliant, both in concept and in all the details. Bjork turns in one of the best acting performances you'll ever see in a video, running through subtle facial expressions to convey empathy and frustration. She can be frustrating because her artistic ambitions can lead her down some bizarre paths. But when it works, it works. And you have to love a song that uses tympani for the bass line. (Yes, I played tympani in college. My senior recital tape is not yet available on eBay.)

56. Chris Isaak, Wicked Game -- Yeah, yeah, Herb Ritts does black-and-white photography on the beach, and this is intense foreplay, blah blah blah. It's all a little too affected for me.

55. Talking Heads, Wild Wild Life -- Of this list of 100, this may be the best video I'd forgotten. John Goodman is indeed a trip, and it's a wonderful idea to run a bunch of characters through the lead role. (Also seen in Jeff Beck's video for Ambitious, in which a bunch of singers trade off the vocals.) The song itself isn't bad, propelled by a typically inventive Tina Weymouth bass line.

53. Jamiroquai, Virtual Insanity -- Agree wholeheartedly with the review. If the effect is that cool, just run with it.

49. Nada Surf, Popular -- I have a couple of issues with the lyrics. I don't get the joke about washing hair every two weeks. How many quarterbacks also write for the school paper? The video itself is a just a literal reading of the song. Maybe that's nit-picking. It's a good song that takes a distinctive approach that happens to work. Worth noting -- Nada Surf has more than one good song.

48. Nirvava, Heart-Shaped Box -- One of Cobain's best songs. The video overreaches and is hard to decipher, but it's worth checking out.

47. Fatboy Slim, Weapon of Choice -- Bill Bryson has a good take on appreciating moments of inspiration, saying he could stand on a beach for eternity and it would never occur to him to turn the stuff on which he's standing into glass. I know how he feels. I could brainstorm my whole life, and I would never think to ask Christopher Walken to dance and fly around an empty hotel lobby to escape from his character's humdrum life. That's why Spike Jonze gets the big bucks.

45. White Stripes, Fell in Love With a Girl -- Perfect song to unleash the Legos. I don't know why, either. It just works.

42. Radiohead, Karma Police -- It's difficult to do a video that matches a methodically paced song without boring viewers, but this one does the trick.

41. Guns n' Roses, November Rain -- And sometimes, artistic overreach does NOT work. Music critics who slag Rush and Yes for their nine-minute epics but drool uncontrollably over this piffle are hypocrites.

40. Smashing Pumpkins, Tonight Tonight -- It's different, sure, and it's a good song. Wouldn't make my top 10 list, but I wouldn't turn it off.

31. Human League, Don't You want Me -- Have to give them credit for digging up this one. Several '80s bands figured out that acting ability was just as essential as musical talent. Human League had both, to be honest. The storytelling in both song and video is impeccable.

29. Weezer, Buddy Holly -- This to me was always the song on the album that makes you think, "Yeah, that's OK." And then you're stunned to hear it played 3,987,284 times on the radio in the next month. As far as shout-outs to Happy Days go, Family Guy is doing it better.

27. Michael Jackson, Thriller -- Lots of money, not many ideas.

24. Madonna, Like a Prayer -- Nah. I don't buy it.

22. Foo Fighters, Everlong -- The song is one of my all-time favorites. You just don't get many sentimental love songs that (A) have original expressions and (B) rock! Making a video for such a song is challenging, and this is a creative solution -- make it funny, yet also sweet.

20. Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime -- One of the early pace-setters for video creativity. Still one of the pace-setters. Makes me wish video directors would go low-budget every once in a while to come up with something novel rather than something expensive.

17. R.E.M., Losing My Religion -- A little affected at times, but it generally works in matching -- and enhancing -- the song's tone of frustration in difficult surroundings. The intro -- Mills, Buck and Berry walking in various states of urgency -- sets the stage for the ominous chords that follow. Even after Weird Al's great commentary ("the roof is collapsing!"), it stands up.

15. Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer -- I can never get past the fact that the song is a blatant rip of Stevie Wonder's Superstition, one of the most important songs ever recorded.

14. Beastie Boys, Sabotage -- Take a song with '70s bass effects and set it underneath a '70s cop show. Can't beat that.

13. Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues -- One of those ideas that doesn't really make any sense but just sticks in your head until it becomes part of the pop culture canon.

11. Fiona Apple, Criminal -- The review is right. It's provocative, and you don't really want it to be. I'm not sure what women think of this song, but the male reaction is "Ewwww, I don't find her attractive. Do I?"

5. Radiohead, Just -- Won't argue with this placement at all. A classic study of people trying to comprehend one man's bizarre behavior. And what IF all the crazy people are actually sane?

4. A-Ha, Take on Me -- Can't argue with this one, either. You may find the song a little flimsy -- it is -- but as the backdrop for a story of a fantasy coming to life, it's terrific.

Off the top of my head, the most disappointing omissions are the entire Men at Work catalog (those funny Aussies) and Ice Cube's It Was a Good Day. Seriously, they have tons of hip-hop videos in here, and they leave out the one that actually says something AND is entertaining to boot?

(By the way -- is there a special insulting word yet for these asshats who take a video from MTV or Comedy Central and superimpose their own "corporate" logo on it? Oh yeah, what a great business plan -- steal copyrighted material and slap "" on it as if WE are the only ones who had the brilliant idea in the first place. Well, I guess it worked for hip-hop.)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Give me tabs or give me ... well, something reasonable

I'm not part of that geeky strain of libertarian who thinks the record industry should say, "Sure, download and copy everything for free!" I work in a content-generating business, and I know it always ticks ME off when I see that someone has just copied my stuff in a way that brings no revenue to the folks who pay my salary. (Yes, it has happened.) So I tend not to get all bent out of shape about things like copy protection.

And I definitely don't buy the argument that we shouldn't have any sympathy for the record industry because all they produce is crap. You're not exactly helping the argument that the industry should be kinder to Guster by copying a bunch of Guster songs so that no one -- including Guster -- profits from the 30 Guster songs you have on the iPod.

But every once in a while, the record industry does something so outlandishly stupid that it's difficult to muster up that grain of sympathy for them.

In this case, they're going after guitar tab-sharing. For those of you who aren't guitar players, "tabs" are a style of notating music to show you fingerings and effects and so forth. Basically, people pick out songs by ear, type up the results and submit them to a mailing list or Web site. (Of course, they're often wrong. Of the eight versions of Purple Haze at one site, only this one gets the first four notes right -- you HAVE to hit those notes on the A string -- and it introduces some unusual fingerings and vague instructions. Buyer beware, but it's free, so ...)

The record industry, for some reason, doesn't like this. One popular site that also featured some really neat drum tabs saw a looming threat and shut down. Another saw that threat beyond the "looming" stage and complied, but the proprietor left us with one of the best-reasoned rebuttals you'll ever read.

His best points:

1. Suppose a guitar teacher teaches you how to play the riff from Purple Haze. Is that copyright infringement?

2. If companies that produce those horrendously overpriced sheet music books are worried about losing money, why not move aggressively online yourselves? (Mxtabs points out that its site generated thousands of dollars in sheet music sales.)

3. If I figure out a song on my own, I'm not violating copyright, but if I don't have a great ear and turn to a tab-sharing site, I am?

There's clearly a market for this sort of thing, and if music publishers would get with the program, they could make some money here. These tab-sharing sites are fun, but they're far from authoritative.

So the record industry proves the geek-chic crowd right. And we all know how annoying that is.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Caddyshack: Pros and cons

Caddyshack is one of those films everyone has seen multiple times because it has such classic moments. Everyone can quote half of Bill Murray's lines, and Chevy Chase puts in his best performance.

But the more you watch, the more flaws you notice.

- Maggie's supposedly Irish accent drifts in and out like a distant radio signal.

- Several subplots and characterizations get such scant screen time and shoddy editing that we have no idea what they're supposed to be. What's the deal with Brian Doyle-Murray's character? Why does Ty have a bunch of checks for $70,000 lying around?

- Bless his heart and rest in peace, but Rodney Dangerfield's character gets grating on repeated viewing. We're supposed to sympathize with him, but really, Ted Baxter has a point. I wouldn't want him in my country club, were I ever to join one. (Which I don't think I could do. I kind of wonder if country clubs will die out in our generation -- I went to a school regarded as snobby and elitist, and I didn't meet a bunch of country club prospects.)

On the other hand, some scenes get better. Cindy Morgan's work (she's Lacey, the stunning blonde) is underrated. (Did you know she's legally blind without glasses? Neither did I.) The massage scene with Chevy Chase is brilliant, as is the little look she gives Michael O'Keefe when Ted Baxter is trying to impale him with a 3-iron.

Baxter is over the top in the final scenes, but you have to love his frustration as he starts deliver a stern lecture to O'Keefe, only to find a desk lamp spoiling the effect. That's a subtle, clever touch.

Perhaps it just needed better editing. We really didn't need the Maggie subplot -- O'Keefe has enough on his plate. Tell me why the heck Ty has checks for $70K, or just lose the reference.

It doesn't really need a plot -- it's one of those films that manages to pull off the loose collection of vignettes and character studies. But I wonder if Ramis would ever consider going back to the tape and trying to re-cut it.

Complex songs, simple videos

Fake Plastic Trees is Radiohead's masterpiece. They seem to have lost their heads trying to determine where to go from there, and it's understandable. There's really nothing they -- or any other band -- can do in the same territory that won't suffer by comparison.

I hadn't seen the video for it until I stumbled into a Top 100 compiled by Stylus. I watched it for the first time this evening and ... was not impressed.

I'm not sure a good video could be made for this one. Stylus claims the supermarket setting perfectly captures the alienation and dull conformity expressed in the song. But the song is about so much more than that. It's not just some whiny Marxist or Billy Corgan rant about how boring life is because the suburbs are sterile.

Is alienation even the main theme of the song? I'd say no. It's about the struggle to keep up appearances, to build facades to cover up those parts of ourselves we don't like. Perhaps they're keeping up appearances to meet some dull conformist standard, but not necessarily. And even so, what does any of it have to do with Thom Yorke scowling on a shopping cart?

If the '60s had been snarky ...

A hypothetical record review page if Blender or Pitchfork or whatever those VH1 guys write for existed in the '60s:

JIMI HENDRIX, Are You Experienced?

For some reason, all these guitarists these days are just getting weird. Take Jimi Hendrix, who isn't even playing notes. The titletrack has a bunch of woop-woop sounds. What's that supposed to be? And then check out the lyrics on Purple Haze -- "Excuse me while I kiss the sky?" Um, OK, what sort of social engagement were you having at which you'd need to say "excuse me" before kissing the sky. And is it really such a good idea to kiss the sky? I mean, the sky has been with everyone on Earth. Ewww. That makes Janis Joplin look like a nun.

Apparently, in concert, Hendrix plays the guitar with his teeth. Maybe he should do ads for dentists.

THE BEATLES, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Yeah, we know, these guys have been a campy diversion for a couple of years now. Tomorrow Never Knows was so completely over-the-top psychedelic that you just had to laugh. And Paul McCartney got so overwrought on Michelle that he actually lapsed into French.

But you won't believe what the Liverpudlians have done on this one. First of all, they forgot to put breaks between the songs! You're listening to some marginally enjoyable song, and all of a sudden you're in the next one? How are you even supposed to know which song you're listening to?

Yet that's not even the record for laziness on this record. At the end of A Day in the Life, just after a horrendously out-of-tune orchestra blares for a bit, they just leave the mike on a piano chord. It just sits there, for what seems like eternity. Nice going, guys. Maybe next time, you can just play one guitar chord for 10 minutes and crash a cymbal at the end.

And what sort of band is led by a sergeant? They couldn't at least get an officer?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Watch OLN tonight

If you haven't seen today's Tour de France already or read about it in detail, watch OLN tonight from 8 to 11. Yes, I know that's the whole evening, but it'll be worth it.

When you're done, come back here, and I'll explain why the race you just saw may well be the most amazing athletic accomplishment you'll see in your lifetime.

UPDATE: OK, did you watch? Great. If not, here's what happened -- Floyd Landis had given up the lead in the Tour de France the day before (Wednesday). He had done more than give it up. He hit the wall with a thud. He "bonked." He ran out of gas. The last climb was a nightmare to watch, as contenders flew away from him and the wanna-bes raced past him, perhaps a little puzzled to be passing the guy in the yellow jersey. When it was done, he was 8 minutes, 8 seconds back with just four stages remaining -- and only two that offer any opportunity to shake things up.

What I asked you to watch on OLN was the last serious mountain stage, which happened to be Thursday.

And so one day after his epic collapse, Landis did something that just isn't done in the Tour. He took off early, on the first of several killer climbs. Sure, you may sometimes see a breakaway from some mountain-climbing specialist like Michael Rasmussen who isn't going to finish above 10th overall. But if you're an established contender, the pack won't let you go.

Someone who has a chance of winning will just send his team to the front of the peloton, and they'll burn themselves out while the rest of the riders draft along, conserving energy for a final burst to blow past the breakaway man. Most breakaways in the Tour are reeled in, even if the people breaking away don't matter in the grand scheme of things (by this time, guys who break away are often one hour or so down in the overall standings).

Riding in the pack, especially on the flat parts and to an extent on the downhills, is so much easier than riding alone. So if the pack wants to hunt you down, they generally can.

Well, Floyd broke away. And he won the stage. And he won by a large enough margin that he's now only 30 seconds behind the leader. And Floyd's a much better time-trial guy than the two guys ahead of him. (The time trial is Saturday. Then comes the largely ceremonial ride into Paris, where any breakaway will be quickly dealt with by the teams who want to spring a sprinter for one last moment of glory in Paris.)

There's really nothing that compares with what Floyd Landis did on that stage. You could look up famous comebacks -- baseball teams coming back from 12 games down, the Red Sox back from 3-0 down against the Yankees, Frank Reich's improbable comebacks with Maryland and Buffalo, etc. You could invoke Kirk Gibson at the plate on two bad legs, hitting a home run that would be replayed for the next 15 years.

But with all due respect to those things, what Landis did was more stunning, more unlikely, more impressive. Gibson needed one swing; Landis had to break away and stay away over a couple of mountains and several hard hours of racing, one day after going BONK on another slope. Football and baseball comebacks are powered by momentum. One day after bonking, with a bunch of emboldened cyclists and their powerhouse teams (Floyd's team -- NOT a powerhouse) chasing after you -- that's the opposite of momentum.

Let's add this note -- did Lance Armstrong ever do anything like this? No. Lance obliterated everyone in time trials, then rode conservatively, protected by a team that worked in perfect harmony to launch him up the final climb, where he would usually put a minute or two between himself and Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso or whoever else was chasing him that year.

Take off by yourself, overhaul the folks who broke away earlier (none contending in the overall), and gain so much time that you force another contender (Carlos Sastre) to break away from the panicked peloton and chase on his own? That just doesn't happen.

And yet it did.

This is why we watch sports.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Black hole sun

I will get back to the channel-by-channel review of XM radio one of these days, I promise. They've changed the lineup a good bit now (bye-bye, World Cup channel -- you'll be missed), and I'm giving a few other "mix" channels a try. The "Hear Music" and "Fine Tuning" mix channels are just a little too mellow, good for about 20 minutes but inevitably dragged down by some fifth-rate James Blunt whining about his lack of a soulmate or whatever he sings about to lure gullible coffeehouse women into bed.

So I was listening to "Sunny" for a while today. At least, I think I was. The mix of mildly upbeat music was just fine, and it wasn't quite like the "beautiful music" description. Especially when they broke out Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart.

What the ... Total Eclipse of the Heart is on the SUNNY channel? Why, because the freaky kids with the glowing eyes in the video represented miniature suns?

I must have been listening to the wrong channel. I had a few reception problems today. Yeah, that's it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Today's sports section

Yes, I'm switching over to sports today, though in the tangential sense, it's still "media." In any case, I have no profound thoughts on music at the moment unless the song was being used in the World Cup or the Tour de France. That's because I am an obsessive fans of sports that Europeans like more than we do, and I'm not apologizing for that. Don't give me any guff about NASCAR and how exciting it is to see cars "tradin' paint." In cycling, guys are trading elbows while yelling at the cameraman on the motorcycle and generating enough wattage to power Pink Floyd's lasers, amps and defibrillators.

If you want a really funny daily take on the Tour, check the Tour day Schmaltz. If you don't watch the Tour, you won't get it. If you do, you will injure yourself laughing.

Anyway, I was planning to write about myself here, because the research is easy. Today served as a stark reminder of why I am paid to write about sports, edit about sports, go to meetings about sports, write code about sports ... but not to PLAY sports. Because, well, I suck.

I played about 30 minutes of soccer today. Soccer stats generally aren't detailed, but I was able to keep a running tally of what I did:

- 0 shots on goal
- 0 effective tackles or defensive plays
- 0 completed passes
- 2 balls skipping over my foot when I had all day to trap them
- 3 botched traps that gave the ball right back to the other team
- 3 instances in which the ball was passed to me, only to see someone race from a direction I wasn't anticipating and take the ball away
- 1 outburst (after the last of those three, right in front of the opposing goal) in which I shouted "Somebody tell me!" I didn't specify what I was supposed to be told, though someone did tell me to move toward the ball. That's sound advice. Someone else came up and apologized to me for not getting me the ball when I was open earlier. Having cooled down from my pointless scream at no one (or myself), I told him we were better off with the ball going behind me.

This is the third time I've played with these guys. Also the third time I've played in close to 10 years. So you'd expect the FIRST time to be really rough, with slight improvement. No. The first time wasn't bad -- I wasn't quite Michael Ballack, but I made a couple of good defensive plays, took a solid shot on goal and completed a few passes. The second time, I scored an own goal (not really my fault) and left all my passes short before running out of gas, though I somehow summoned the energy and skill to make one good play -- a chip over two defenders to a teammate who took the ball perfectly in stride. This time, I couldn't even control the ball long enough to pass it.

I guess next time, I'll just pick up the ball and hurl it into my own net. At least I could only improve from there.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Weezer -- wheezing

I like Weezer as much as most people, and I'm especially a fan of their marvelous debut album's hits (Undone, Say It Ain't So) and hidden gems (In the Garage, Only in Dreams). But if Rivers Cuomo can't come to grips with life as a rock frontman after all these years, I can only muster so much sympathy.

NME reports on Cuomo's current Hamlet pose: "I certainly don't see (my new songs) becoming Weezer songs, and I don't really see the point of a solo career."

OK, then -- nice knowing you, enjoy your royalties, see you on a VH1 special in 10 years.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Random song thoughts

A couple of songs that are popping up on my iPod this days:

- The Weapon, Rush: This is one of those songs crying out for an update. It's from the 1982 album Signals, which along with 1984's Grace Under Pressure, has plenty of good songs but is forever trapped by its dated synthesizer sound. The Weapon is the best example. Alex Lifeson plays some snappy guitar riffs in counterpoint to the synths, and the lyrics -- about fear as a means of controlling the masses -- have aged better than a lot of Neil Peart's efforts to be profound. ("The knowledge that they fear is a weapon to be used against them" is a nice broadly applicable slogan.)

- Worn Me Down, Rachael Yamagata: In other hands, this would be a tedious whinefest. She gives an unsympathetic account of herself -- one might even say pathetic -- as the woman who finally realizes that she needs to back out of this relationship because the guy just isn't going to get over his ex, to the point that there's a metaphorical third person in the bed. The reason it works: She gains strength from seeing the situation so clearly, even though she realizes that the situation was, simply put, icky. "No, you're wrong, you're wrong / I'm not overreacting," she sings. She's resigned to the situation but is leaving with her dignity, and she'll leave it with a song that rocks a little. Good for her. The song is a little overproduced, with far too many vocal overdubs near the end, but that's nit-picking.

Teen ... or in this case, adult ... angst

It's "advertise the fall series" time on TV, and there's a common theme ...

They're all pretty much the same freaking thing. Just like Invasion, Surface, the 4400 and all the other dramas on TV, they're all various permutations of the "gee, this situation sucks, so let's see how many complications we can add" formula that has served 24 and Lost so well. You could call it the "sitdram" format -- they're mostly serials based on that dreary situation and various attempts to get out of it that only lead to secret hatches, murdered relatives, conspiracy-minded presidents and teens who end up realizing too late that the woman they think was their mom actually killed the real mom when the real mom showed up ... yes, I'm lumping Desperate Housewives in here, because brief outbursts of comedy and occasional glimpses of Eva Longoria in glammed-up revealing outfits don't hide the fact that it is, at its heart, another convoluted depressing drama.

Let's run through the list, as compiled at

- Brothers & Sisters:
"Shocking family secrets are revealed along the way!"

- Men in Trees: OK, this sounds different -- Anne Heche as a jilted woman rediscovering the meaning of life in Alaska.

- The Nine: Our lives are forever changed after being held hostage. How many seasons to they expect to milk out of that premise?

- Six Degrees: This could be different and kind of interesting if done right, but my hunch it won't progress beyond the "Hey, my life could've been so different" premise, and I fear they'll serialize it.

- Smith: CBS' answer to The Sopranos.

- Jericho: Oh dear crap. A small town thinks it's the last outpost of civilization because they think there was a nuclear blast? I'll assume for the moment that they've lost all telephone, television and radio contact with the outside world, but wouldn't it occur to anyone that someplace in the world -- New Zealand springs to mind -- isn't likely to be affected by a nuclear explosion in the United States or any circumstances that could've brought that about? "Oh no, they blew up Kansas City! That's the only other populated area on Earth!"

- Shark: James Woods as an on-the-edge DA ... OK, that might be worth it.

- Runaway: It's a family drama -- the whole family is running from the bad guys.

- Vanished: Title says it all, doesn't it?

- Standoff: Assuming they don't focus on the same standoff all season, this is a least a little different than the serials.

- Justice: Part Murder One, part Boomtown -- might be interesting.

- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: I've heard about this show. It's a drama? About Saturday Night Live?

- Heroes:
At least the good guys are the ones with superpowers, not the aliens or miscellaneous bad guys.

- Kidnapped: Everyone's a suspect!

- Friday Night Lights: Texas football -- definitely different.

So I count eight shows that fall into the "serialized tales of woe" category.

Now perhaps the TV programmers aren't to blame. Maybe these just look alike in the marketing.

But somewhere along the line, there's a distinct lack of originality, coupled with the belief that in the post-9/11 world, we all want to escape to fantasy worlds that are bleaker than the reality of this decade so far!

Before you say, "Hey, they're dramas, they're supposed to be sad," consider what passed for "drama" back in the '70s and '80s. (Coincidentally, we're watching the new VH1 show on the '70s, so I'll have plenty of material without doing actual research.) Here's a sampler:

- Magnum, P.I.: Everything wrapped up in time to get a good zinger between Magnum and Higgins at the end.
- CHiPs: "But Ponch, we have to catch the car thief in time to get Billy to the BMX race and throw down some sanitized dance moves in the disco!"
- L.A. Law: "But Arnie, you've slept with all the women in the firm and all your clients! How am I supposed to bill those hours?"
- Dallas: All fun and games until it was time for a cliffhanger, when someone was just gonna have to die.
- Miami Vice: The ultimate in style, now fodder for a film that appears from the trailers to have forgotten everything that made the show unique. (And apparently, the trailer isn't far off the mark.)

Sure, there were thought-provoking serialized dramas as well (Kung Fu, Knight Rider, The Incredible Hulk). But they didn't dominate the airwaves, and they didn't seem as determined as these shows to give you nightmares. Some of the ads for Invasion made me so creeped-out I'd have to walk to Chipotle and eat a whole bag of chips to properly re-ground myself in reality.

And what's wrong with a TV drama that has a sense of humor? Without the snarking celeste music of Grey's Anatomy?

Friday, July 07, 2006

How a newspaper works and how it doesn't

Disclaimer: Yes, I work for a newspaper chain. I've worked for four of them, including the NYTimes chain, which used to own the Santa Barbara News-Press.

When people complain about the local paper, the lack of local ownership is often one of the issues, whether it's relevant or not. These days, folks in Santa Barbara might wish their local paper was still owned by folks in ... New York City??!!

A sizable chunk of the news staff walked out this week because they've had it with the (local) owner. Some of the complaints are complex. Some aren't.

Let's play "You make the call." Your editorial page editor is arrested on a DUI charge. Do you:

A. Give the story as much play as you gave the DUI arrest of a local politician.

B. Try to squelch the story, then eventually promote this guy to be acting publisher, then give him much more free rein than a publisher should be given to interfere in the newsroom. (Particularly a publisher who used to be an editorial page guy!)

You can probably guess what happened.

The funny thing -- up until this point in the story, I just found the whole thing amusing. Here's where I got mad.

The ex-editorial page editor, current acting publisher and recent DUI defendant (remember, all the same person) published a "Note to Readers" about the situation:

We are fortunate in Santa Barbara to have local ownership and management under Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger. In far too many cities across the United States, a few newspaper chains dominate the marketplace. We are pleased to be an independent voice in Santa Barbara that provides varying and different viewpoints that are not called in to us from Back East, Down South or even another country.
It's bad enough in my eyes when politicians say things they know to be patently bullshit because they know most people can't see through it. When an alleged journalist does it, I take that person behind the woodshed.

Let's explain the function of most newspaper chains, including the News-Press' former owner, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. They buy newspapers because they want to make money. Owning a lot of newspapers also helps a chain create a healthy wire service, and those papers are able to share resources.

The big chains absolutely do not dictate editorial coverage. Not "editorial coverage" in the sense of the editorial page, not "editorial coverage" in the sense of the newsroom. When I scratched out sports columns for an NYTRNG paper, I ran them by the sports editor sitting three feet away, not some guy hidden in an underground bunker in New York.

If someone were pulling all the strings by remote control, the editorial page and the newsroom would both be compelled to follow suit. Let me let you in on a little secret: Reporters and copy editors generally make fun of the editorial page folks. The editorial page speaks for a newsroom as much as a dog speaks for a cat. Sure, they'll agree every now and then on a simple topic such as whether your food looks good enough to steal from your plate. But that's about it.

Case in point: Last weekend on Meet the Press, Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood distanced himself from the WSJ's recent edit-page rant about the NYTimes (you know, that whole government surveillance story that is Topic A in mediapolitical circles but has barely registered among people who have lives):
First of all, that editorial wasn’t kidding when they said there’s a separation between the news and the editorial pages at The Wall Street Journal.

Secondly, there is a very large gap between the ideological outlook and philosophy of The New York Times editorial page and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. There is not a large ideological gap between the news staffs of those two places, and why would there be? Some of the top people of The New York Times were hired from The Wall Street Journal. What I found shocking about the editorial was the assertion that The New York Times did not act in good faith in making that judgment. I don’t know anybody on the news staff of The Wall Street Journal that believes that. I certainly don’t.
I saw another transcript of the same show in which ex-NYT right-wing columnist William Safire wholeheartedly agreed. Naturally, I can't find it now, so you'll all have to trust me, as if you can't tell from the rest of that transcript how Safire feels about the issue.

Here's the deal with journalists: They're generally well-meaning people who try exceptionally hard to get things right and do a good job. Mistakes eat away at their souls and their stomach linings, but they make them. They do not operate in conspiratorial lockstep. Believe me -- most journalists already hate their editors and other bosses. They're not going to follow them off ethical cliffs simply because the bosses say so. If they did, no one would be quitting in Santa Barbara this week.

Mr. Edit Publisher knows people assume otherwise, so he thinks he can make hay with the line about viewpoints being called in from "Back East, Down South or another country." (Another country?? The only news outlets that spring to mind that have foreign ownership of any kind are Rupert Murdoch's holdings, and having an Australian at the very top of the corporate food chain
is the very least of Fox News Channel's problems.) And in saying something so deliberately misleading, he proves that his values are absolutely not those of good journalism. Good punditry, maybe, but that's an oxymoron.