Monday, January 21, 2008

We All Strike On

A couple of years ago, I probably would have make a comment on how surprisingly good television is lately. We were looking at a universe where, every night, there was a virtual certainty of running into CSI, a CSI spinoff, or a CSI clone. And how do you say no to that? (I suppose pretty easily, if you're not into CSI.) The pre-strike universe lent itself well to my tastes in television: quasi-intellectual suspenses that put the focus squarely on the action, or the mystery, or the intrigue rather than petty inter-character relationships. That doesn't mean they're stagnant two-dimensional characters, and that doesn't mean there's no development. It just means that the writers are clever enough to put those personalities to use in the midst of something worth following.

That "something worth following", just a few years beforehand, was drivel: the reality television boom of the early 2000's. Remember that? Those paleolithic days of dating shows, or dating shows in the city, or dating shows on the beach, or dating shows in Europe? (The similarities of those permutations to those of my supposed television halcyon are of course irrelevant.) That's not even to mention a veritable waste land of sometimes goofy, sometimes sappy "dromedies" of which Friends is the most recognizable and watchable example. That's saying something. (Recently, I decided to give it a chance and watch some of the show, around half of the first season. It wasn't all that bad, but there is much better out there.)

Now maybe that's not everybody's cup of tea. Perhaps you are into complex, character-y dramas. Maybe they're set on the stages of television sketch comedy production. Maybe they're about attractive suburbanite moms. Maybe it's some crap about people screwing each other in a hospital. Maybe it's a bunch of people stranded from a plane crash on some weird deserted (or not-so-deserted) island. (...okay, so Lost actually is really good.) Point is, if you're into that sort of thing, it was out there, at least until a few months ago. Honestly, I think there was something out there for anyone, at least anyone who was looking. Nearly every would-be critic agreed that things were better than they were at the beginning of the decade, whatever they preferred. Even reality TV holdouts couldn't complain, as electronic Darwinism had taken its toll on the worst and kept the last bad (eg, The Amazing Race).

I turn to three examples to exhibit how dreadfully dependent Hollywood has been on the writers. I first feel like I need to admit that I have watched all of these shows, and I'm not too proud to watch them again, at some point. Deal or No Deal was around even when Jay Leno was allowed by contract to make notes on cards (he's not, as of January 2008), and it's the least objectionable of what currently passes for watchable television. In case you haven't heard of this one, it centers around someone picking a number at random, computing probability so simple a high school statistics student could figure it out, and essentially seeing how greedy (or merely bad at mathematics) the contestant is. Despite Howie Mandel and twenty-something provocatively-clad models clutching numbers, the show realizes it faces a big problem here. There is no variation. On nearly every other show that gives out free money, there's some device to vary the scheme. Perhaps it's trivia questions, or contestant interaction, or a contrived physical competition.

Deal or No Deal, though, is faced with the same expected-value problem every time the show airs. And until people decide to start writing again, it's minor tweaks in concept, or additions of extra cash, or reliance on the short attention span of the general populace, to keep the same old thing afloat.

For sheer absurdity value, it's tough to beat American Gladiators. That one's become a weekly favorite in the dorm, not because it's actually a good show, but to make fun of how absolutely ridiculous it is. Six-foot, five-inch dudes who call themselves "Wolf" and toss hundred-pound swinging weights at muscled guys in Spandex? Swimming under real live flames? Hundred mile an hour Nerf cannons? How can you possibly go wrong? The real puzzle is trying to figure out who greenlit bringing this show back, fifteen years later. Truly, our desperation from having no writing can't get any lower than this, right?

Or so you might think, unless you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of MTV's The X Effect. Premise: take a couple that used to be together, but is now broken up. Both the guy and girl have long since moved on and found themselves new significant others. Now, take the two exes, put them in the same hotel room for a weekend, and surprise! Turns out they still have feelings for each other! Why not let their current partners watch and get jealous? Seriously, MTV? Breaking up otherwise happy couples by throwing in some potent "ex" catalyst?

A girl I know wrote an article in Georgia Tech's local fishwrapper The Technique about the writer's strike opening up all sorts of lovely political discussion, prompting people to watch C-Span and discuss issues. Maybe so. I've personally heard more discussion of how that one dude totally knocked Titan off the platform in Joust yesterday.

I live in fear of seeing what's going to happen to American mainstream culture once the writer's strike hits movie theaters.

Currently listening: "Empty", Metric

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