Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Fruitless Obsession

I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and if this entry has any similarities to that the book, it is purely coincidental. What won’t be coincidental is that Gladwell has probably written about the topic much better than me.

I’ve been thinking about an issue a lot lately, so much that it’s become a quiet obsession, but ultimately it’s going to be an obsession in which will prove to be fruitless because it’s not quantifiable. What I’m trying to define is the exact moment when something (whether it’s a pop culture event like a television show or movie or song or a living organism such as an athlete or an actor or a writer or a ham-and-egger) goes from ordinary to extraordinary.

That seems like a very generic introduction, but I will explain it further using the professional athlete as a cypher. I began collecting baseball cards in 1986 and when I first opened my wax packs, I was excited to gaze upon any Jim Rice, Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Ricky Henderson cards. These were super stars and more importantly they were older stars, stars with a track record, stars that had an impressive resume, stars that did stuff and that were slam-dunk Hall of Famers. In my mind these cards were surely the ones that were worth more than the pieces of cardboard that simply had a mishmash of minor league numbers on the back. The were the cards of prospects who had little more than a promise of greatness and an avalanche of hype.

Why would you value a picture of a guy who COULD something over the card of a man who DID do something? To me, this was logical.

After visiting a few baseball card shops and baseball card shows, it became apparent to me that my thinking was backwards. The thing that drove this hobby isn’t finding someone who already did do something, the trick is to find someone that is about to do something. That’s the hardest nut to crack. Because for every Bo Jackson Future Stars, there are a 1,000 Pat Dodsons from the same sub set of player. It occurred to me that baseball card people were interested in the blind prospect, the gold around the corner, the two in the bush versus the one in the hand. And for awhile, even though these players did absolutely nothing, these cards were valuable until one day they were proved that they weren’t.

At some point, most collectors turned into prospectors: betting a few bucks on Gregg Jefferies or Steve Avery or Cory Snyder. Kids bought magazines like Beckett Baseball Cards to find out who are the “no doubt” Hall of Famers who were destroying the minor leagues and were just waiting for a chance to dominate the Major Leagues. And while there are ball players that flame out and prove that they aren’t stars, there are a handful of players who did become great. Players who eventually become starting ball players, consistent All Stars, perennial MVPs and Cy Young winners and ultimately Hall of Famers.

After some time these players become the men who everyone talk about as the upper echelon of the game. What I want to know is the day, the specific game, the specific at-bat where they turn from prospect to star. When they realize their potential. And it’s also interesting to determine the opposite, the instant where everything goes to shit, when a player goes from prospect to suspect to an after thought. There has to be a moment. But where is that moment?

Finding this moment is difficult to pin down because a transformation is usually made over time: from fan (cult) favorite to city favorite to national favorite to a transcendent star. The latter is someone like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady; a player whom someone who doesn’t follow sports would now. Perhaps this is difficult to pinpoint because there are four different stops along this line, but these points are there. And it usually springs from an event: a big hit, a winning drive, etc. That event usually gets people talking and if he does it again, more people talk. The more that player’s greatest becomes ordinary, the more people talk about it and the more his stature grows. Though that greatness genesis begins somewhere.

It might be difficult to pinpoint an athlete’s greatness on a grand scale because it’s difficult to get a group of people looking at the same sky to agree on the color of said sky. So an argument ensues on the first “great” thing that a player has done.

One might think that a game-winning sacrifice fly in the eighth inning might be the start and shows the onlooker that the player can deliver when the game is late. Another person may say that a sacrifice fly is an out that virtually 99% of all major leaguers can do, but a game-winning hit is where the legend begins. Another may counter that there have been plenty of regular-season heroes, a true great makes his bones in the playoffs. And so on.

Perhaps it’s easier to determine your personal appreciation for how an athlete excels at his craft. Going back to 1986 and finding out that Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners certainly put him on my radar. As a relatively new baseball fan, I knew that this was a big deal (though I wasn’t sure exactly how big of a deal it was) but I started intently following him: watching his games, reading the press clippings the next day, making sure I watched the local sports report for tidbits on him. As his record grew to 8-0, 10-0, 12-0 and finally 14-0 to begin the season I had gone from a Roger Clemens fan to a Roger Clemens fanatic.

I wanted to read everything about him, his posters adorned my wall, I feverishly opened packs of cards to find his cardboard likeness. I talked about him non-stop that summer. Over the years that fanaticism never maintained the frenzy (it couldn’t) Roger Clemens was always my favorite player. I made excuses for why he pitched poorly in the post season, why Oakland Athletic Dave Stewart always seemed to have his number, why it was okay to ignore new manager Butch Hobson. Major League Baseball was Roger Clemens’ world and I was happy to observe it.*

* Of course then he pulled the ultimate villain move when he packed up his gear went north, never really acknowledging the Boston fans on his way out the door, holding some sort of vendetta against the Red Sox, ramping up his training and winning two Cy Young awards as a Blue Jay. Then he complained about the lack of winning Blue Jay players until he forced his way to the Yankees, retired, unretired, got embroiled in PED allegation, sold his wife and his colleagues out in a trial and behaved like a miserable self-absorbed person. Beginning with his defection to New York, Roger Clemens has been Public Enemy Number One.

Clemens is an easy example because his rise to popularity came at around the same time I began my obsession with baseball. Therefore it’s easy to chart my Clemens fandom with my love of baseball. But there are countless of other players that have come and gone that I have really enjoyed watching play. And while the game has stayed constant, the players have not and I’d like to be able to find out when I began liking them.

And while it may be simpler to pinpoint the greatness of athletes, you can do the same—albeit it’s tougher—with actors and actresses, musicians, writers or pretty much anyone. With an actor there is a certain scene in a movie where you realize, “Yes! This person is good at his craft and I like what they are doing. I want to see more of their work.” The same thing is true with music, you can listen to a CD once or twice or ten times and it finally clicks*. For a writer, it’s a book. And if you drill down even more, maybe it’s a particularly poignant page or paragraph.

* For me, music is a bit tougher because I always tie music to memories. One of the reasons why I like Pearl Jam, especially albums such as “Ten” or “Vs” is for the songs themselves, yes, but it also reminds me of college and my 20s. These CDs and others like it (Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream”, Beastie Boys “Check Your Head” to name a few) remind me of friends I haven’t seen in awhile, meandering drunken conversations that went nowhere and everywhere, dancing with girls whose name I have long forgotten. It reminds me of a time when my life was laid out before me and the possibilities seemed endless. There have been other CDs and songs that I’ve loved since the 1990s, but they’re tethered to memories too. I remember devouring Cake’s oeuvre around the time my first daughter was born and I can’t hear “Italian Leather Sofa” or “Alpha Beta Parking Lot” without thinking of her.

The bottom line is that this is a very tough exercise whether you choose an athlete or an entertainer because you’re never going to know that you’re in that moment. For every Manny Ramirez cracking three homers against the Yankees as a Cleveland Indian rookie, there is a Todd Benzinger launching a late-inning home run off the seemingly untouchable Minnesota Twins reliever Jeff Reardon to prolong 1988’s Boston Red Sox Morgan Magic.

The ability of hindsight is absolutely key when figuring out when your favorite player truly becomes a favorite player and not a, to borrow baseball card parlance, a common with a great moment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nostalgia for Nothing

The above title isn’t indicative of what this post is going to be about, but it was alliterative and reflected the spirit better than Nostalgia for Nihilism, so I went with it.

My wife and I have two daughters under the age of six. The oldest one is five and the youngest one has just turned two. Each kid has their own personalities that will undoubtedly change between now and their teenage years. As their parents, Aly and I worry about them constantly. While a lot of our concerns overlap, there are things that she freaks out about more than I do and vice-versa.

One of the things that I think about is what I’m giving to my children and how it ultimately affects them. If you’ve read this Blog over the years, you’ll find that the one thing I’m a tad obsessed about is nostalgia. I write about it all the time. Most of my jokes and references are rooted in a 70s/80s/90s/early 00s pop culture quagmire that is becoming less relevant to anyone outside of my generation as the days go by. So it should come as no shock that when I talk to my kids and share things with them, most of the time, I’m sharing things that I liked when I was a boy.

This leads me to over-thinking about whether I am making my kids nostalgic for a past that they never had.

To wit: for the longest time, my kids’ favorite song was “The Banana Splits Theme Song”. Do you know how many times they’ve seen that show? The youngest one has never watched an episode and the oldest saw half an episode once but asked me to shut it off because “The Arabian Knights” cartoon was too scary. Yet, they love the Banana Splits song and ultimately the idea of the Banana Splits, especially when I tell them how much I used to love the show as a kid and how I would always wake up from my nap at 1:30 pm so I could flip on TV-56 and watch the Splits* do something funny.

* The interesting thing is that the Banana Splits was a take-off on the Monkees which was a take-off on the Beatles. So while what I was watching was a third-generation version of the original, my daughters are grooving to a fourth (or fifth) generation of the Fab Four. Let’s all do the Banana Split, indeed.

When we read comics, I’m usually reading the old Marvel stuff that I used to love and the girls are reading updated kiddie versions of that same old stuff.

When they hunker down to watch TV they both beg to watch Boomerang, which is Cartoon Network Classic. Or they ask to tune into The Hub, which has old stuff from the 80s like JEM, Transformers, GI Joe* and updated stuff from the same era. Even Nickelodeon (to an extent) and Disney keep churning entertainment built on characters from their past. My youngest is obsessed with Tinkerbell, so much that we have to watch one of the movies (usually the 30-minute short) every night before she goes to bed. And while these movies are new, the character of Tinkerbell has to be about 60 years old now.

* By the way all of the shows we liked as kids suck now. There is literally no rhyme, reason or logic to any of the plots—which are so warmed over and hackneyed they’d make Chuck Lorre blush in their unoriginality.

The toys that they own are things both my wife and I played with when younger: Legos, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Barbie (I’ll let you guess which of the proceeding toys I played with the most – answer below!). Even some of the toys that weren’t around when I was a kid have some sort of mooring to the past. For example, the oldest was on an American Girl Dolls kick a few months ago. These are extremely expensive dolls and accessories that have back stories set in the past*. Some dolls are set during the Revolutionary War, some dolls are from the Civil War, others are part of the Great Depression (so fun!). My oldest loves Julie, who is based in the 1970s.

* There are some dolls that have adventures in the present, but the ones that American Girl seems to focus on and market are the ones from past era.

Many of the toys that are on the shelves today seem to be a derivative of something that sold well in the past. And I know why this is true: nostalgia is big business. If you can tap into a parent’s past and polish it up to look like something current it’s going to serve two masters. One, the parent won’t mind purchasing it (“It’s just like what I used to play with!”) and two, it’s new and shiny and current so the child will crave it. The first part of that last sentence is most important because the parent controls the purse strings and when they’re spending cash, they want to make sure that it will be something that’s “worth it”.

To put it another way, I remember how much fun I used to have playing with Legos when I was a kid. Therefore I have no problem spending a small fortune on buying them Legos. Subconsciously I’m thinking, “I had a great time with these toys when I was a kid, so why shouldn’t my child have the same memories?” The feeling of shared memories—even brokered over decades—is strong and manufacturers understand and exploit this.

And the most important reason for this is: it’s just plain easier (and cheaper) to repackage things that sold well a generation ago than to come up with a brand new idea.

It will be interesting to see what this does to children of this generation. If adults are stalled in an arrested development that trickles down to their, what will the effects be? I am not suggesting that Gen Xers or Baby Boomers* grew up in an idyllic era of completely new products and ceaseless imagination. There are plenty of toys that I played with, television shows that I watch, songs that I listened to that were from my parents’ childhoods. Same with them and my grandparents. However, it seems that this recycling is on a grander scale.

* Who names generations anyway? Is it some sort of pop culture collective that come up with these increasingly ridiculous monikers? Because these names are down-right embarrassing. I wouldn’t even use them if they weren’t so darn handy.

Perhaps because there are more things vying for the attention of children, toy manufacturers need a proven commodity to make money. There is a multitude of television channels that need hundreds of hours of programming. Imagination and originality are a finite (and expensive) resource, no matter what Willie Wonka tells you. On average, our kids may be getting more original programming but it’s getting lost in the non-stop caterwauling of children’s television. Just by simple necessity, the old stuff outweighs the new stuff by at least three-to-one.

The final piece to this puzzle is accessibility. When my dad or mom would tell me about things they enjoyed from when they were children, it was a story and once it was done, it was lost in the ether. Unless one of my grandmothers kept one of their toys, I wasn’t going to be able to see it, hold it, experience it. They may as well have been telling me about the first steam engine. Same thing goes for their TV shows. Every once in awhile I’d tune in to the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or see an old cartoon, but very rarely would my parents and I talk about the show and I’d see it immediately.

There was no real tangible connection.

In this era, if we can remember it, we can see it. A few days ago I was humming a seemingly long-forgotten song from an Charlie Brown show that somehow wormed its way to the front of my brain. My daughter wanted to know what I was humming, I told her, she laughed and within seconds we were on YouTube checking it out. Now her memory is of watching this show after my brain regurgitated a once lost memory. In effect, I had to experience this first before she could.

I don’t think that’s the way it has always been this way.

At the beginning of this piece I wrote about how my kids have never seen a full episode of the Banana Splits, but love the song and idea of the show; especially when I talk about it from my perspective. While it’s true, they’ve barely seen the show, they’ve seen the opening theme/introduction to the show probably well over one thousand times. In fact, my oldest runs up the playground slide backwards and playfully falls on her side because she’s seen Drooper do it so many times.

Because of the instant accessibility of our childhood combined with the repurposing of old toys and TV shows, I worry that our kids are going to have false memories. I can picture my daughter telling her friends about how she used to run up the slide backwards and fall because she remembers a anamorphic lion from a program that she used to watch “all the time” doing the same thing. But the fact is she didn’t watch the show, she watched only a part of the show though she may not intrinsically know, or really understand, this fact.

Perhaps we as a culture will one day decide that “true” memories aren’t valid or even necessary anymore. These new societal mores may eventually pave the way for a scenario that echos the beginning of the movie/short story “Total Recall”. Specifically the scene when the main character Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger because fuck Colin Farrell in the remake – and yes, I get the irony in relation to what I’m writing about) enters the travel agency to has his brain implanted with memories of a vacation he never took may not be science fiction.

Then we’ll be that much closer to finding a woman with three boobs.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thursdays at 8:00

During the last two Thursdays, something interesting has happened to my television viewing: one of my favorite shows left the air and another one of my favorite shows tardily began its fourth (abbreviated) season. These two shows yin-yanged themselves onto Thursday nights at 8:00 pm on NBC.

I’m talking about “30 Rock”, which is the show that’s leaving the network and “Community” which is returning to the network – albeit on borrowed time.

To say that “Community” had an interesting nine months since a new episode last aired would be disingenuous to the word “interesting”. It’s been chaotic, as the show’s creator and producer Dan Harmon was kicked off his show for being “too difficult” to work with. Two new show runners were brought in and were set up with a writing staff that was once under Harmon.

In addition to the upheaval at the top, there were constant rumors of cancellation, but the prevailing wisdom is that “Community” wasn’t canceled because it was so close to its syndication threshold that it was actually better to have an abbreviated season so that Sony (which owns the show) could sell it off and recoup the first-run losses with second-run money. Also, Chevy Chase (the cast member who may be the most widely-known to the culture at large) has feuded with pretty much everyone on the show and in a fit walked off the show with two episodes left to film. He is not expected back.

During this uneven off-season, the group of people who love “Community” became more vocal and tried to hype the show as much as it could, using social media as a tool. The Twitter hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie trended during various times in the summer. With all of this news, “Community” was technically gone, but never left.  

* A note on the next few paragraphs, a lot of the next few paragraphs came from a few posts that I made on a Red Sox message board. You may think that it’s strange that a board devoted to sports would also have topics about television shows—and you’d be correct—but the Sox didn’t give us much to cheer about last year, so we had to expand our interests. It may be disjointed, but I haven't written long-form in about two years, so give me a break. 

With nine months of inside baseball, I was ready for the new episodes to start off and it did last Thursday. As I said earlier, “Community” holds down the lead-off spot in NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup.

Two things:

1. I think that “Community” is not an 8:00 show. An 8:00 show should be all-encompassing and welcoming. If you miss an episode of an 8:00 show, it shouldn’t be a big deal. “The Cosby Show” and “Friends” were 8:00 shows that worked well for NBC in the past. In spite the ironic title “Community” is exclusionary and much like “Arrested Development” if you miss an episode of “Community” you’re going to miss a bunch of jokes.

2. NBC Thursday night is not really “Must See TV” anymore. In fact, it’s a bit of a comedic graveyard in terms of ratings. It seems that no one wants to sit down and watch great sitcoms any more as “30 Rock”, “Community”, “Parks and Rec” and even “The Office” have seen Nielsen Families ignore them as if they were the new kid’s first day of his senior year a new in high school.

After the episode, this was my initial reaction: I liked the episode, though I didn’t love it. If I were to give it a grade it would be a B. But there did seem to be something off. I don't know how to explain it, so I'll use an analogy. I have kids and when they break something I will glue it back together. They will play with it and will use it like any other toy, but at the same it doesn't quite feel like the same thing. Something has been changed, even though it's been fixed.

Perhaps I'm making too much of this and seeing stuff that isn't there. Maybe if I didn't know the behind-the-scenes crap and wasn’t besieged by “Community” propaganda on an every-day basis, maybe I wouldn't have felt that way, but I do. So even though I went into the episode determined that nothing was broke, something felt a bit off.

The one negative is that there seems to be too much Dean Pelton . I like the character a lot, much the way that I liked Ed Helms' character Andy Bernard from his first couple of seasons on "The Office". But once Helms started getting a ton of camera time, it became too much. I think that there are two things wrong with the character:

1. He's a bit of a one-note character. Like Bernard, Pelton is a broadly stroked character.

2. There are already six main characters, seven if you count Sr. Chang, and a bunch of really good background characters that sometimes move to the foreground. The show is only 22 minutes long, so there is only so much that each character can do. If you add another one then you take away from the core six.

Other than that, I thought it was a good beginning.

The premiere of “Community” has me a bit worried (I guess as worried as I could be about a TV show – first world problems!) about the return of "Arrested Development" to the land of the living. And it's not that I'm worried about the quality of the show, I'm worried about my crazy, high expectations. I still DVR AD and watch as many episodes as much as I can, it's like the early seasons of the Simpsons and Seinfeld, I know every episode front to back. And much like how later seasons of "The Simpsons" (and "Seinfeld" for that matter) fared in comparison to the syndicated version of the show being shown right before the newer episodes, the perceived quality of the show always seemed worse. Whether that is true or not is left to be debated at another time.

The point is this, will "Arrested Development" Season 4 be considered as "good" as seasons 1-3, at least initially? No. People are going to say that it's missing something, much like some of us are doing now. But in reality what the show will miss is the mythology of the first three seasons and the constant syndication of those seasons. In this case familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but love. I think that fourth season of "Community" may go down the same path, albeit without the constant replaying of the shows.

Also what's working against "Community" (and AD for that matter) is months and months of hype of how this is "the best show ever" and how "NBC is stupid to cancel it because it's so awesome". From my own experience there have been a grand total of one time where I have waited for something for a long time and the result lived up to the hype (both in my head and from the pop culture world around me) and that was this past summer with "The Avengers". I'm not saying that "The Avengers" was the greatest movie ever (far from it), but since I bought my first Avengers comic back in 1981, I dreamed of how it would look like on the screen. And it looked almost exactly how imagined it.

Anyway, the point is this, things that are overhyped tend to disappoint and rarely live up to expectations. That doesn't mean that they're bad, it just means that they aren't quite as good as what we thought they would be. Again "Community" is perceived as such in an us-(meaning "intelligent" TV watchers)-vs-them-(slack-jawed CBS watchers)-pop-culture mentality that there is a chance Season 4 will never live up to those incredibly high standards. Plus the unanswered question of "What would Dan Harmon have done differently"?

Which leads to my next point, as far as Harmon leaving, he probably didn’t have a bottomless pit of ideas, but he was fastidious in his attention to detail that it made watching and reading about the show incredibly fun. We've all seen the Beetlejuice thing right? That's some epic-level, OCD, editing right there. It's almost sick (as in mental illness wise) the way that Harmon orchestrated every, single piece of this universe. That's what I'll end up missing (even if I don't know at the time that I'm missing it).

That last question (what would happen to a show if the main voice left) was something that “30 Rock” never had to deal with. Despite being saddled with terrible numbers (but tons of love from the industry and TV critics), NBC stubbornly kept it on its schedule. With the show experiencing a resurgent in writing during its last season, some people felt that it was unceremoniously shown the door.

I think that their anger is misguided because what other network would have the patience to keep this show on the air despite it never being a true hit? This was the best era and NBC was the best network for this show to be on. The Peacock Network has been so bad during the last decade that they kept one of it's only critically acclaimed shows going even though the numbers were god-awful.

What if this show debuted during NBC’s salad days or on another network?

If this was the 80s or 90s, the show would have lasted a month, tops.
If this show was on CBS, the show would have lasted a half-season.
If this show was on HBO, it wouldn't have been half as clever as it is.

NBC did a really good job nurturing this show and giving it a chance (IE not moving it around, I'm pretty sure it was always on Thursday) and gave Tina Fey a lot of latitude in the scripts. If you wanted to watch “30 Rock” you knew where to find it.

As has been said time and again, networks aren’t charities and they don’t keep shows on the air that don’t make money. “30 Rock” brought prestige and was allowed to leave on its own terms and with something left in its tank, which is rare. A show like “The Office” is limping to the finish line, “Friends” was down-right unwatchable in it’s last few years. I enjoyed the Larry David-less seasons of “Seinfeld” but even I admit that it lost some of it’s cynical bite that made it so awesome.

Maybe when networks cancel a show too early, it’s a good thing. It allows us to rage against the machine while also allowing us the ability to use our brains to imagine what the next seasons would be like. TV shows have a shelf life, our imaginations do not.