Monday, May 22, 2017

"No Sure Things"


I am thinking about Bull.  But first, I’ll talk about Phyllis.  Because both reflect, to me, a similar difficulty:

An expected hit series that appears to be missing.

Phyllis was spun off (as was Rhoda) from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  A supercilious know-it-all, Phyllis Lindstrom was extracted from Mary and given a half-hour series of her own. 

Talented actress.  Shining creative auspices – Phyllis was conceived and developed by Emmy-winning producers Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels.  I’d bet on those pedigreed bloodlines.  The problem, possibly suspected but rigorously ignored (“Hey, they’re giving us a show!”):

It was a flimsy vehicle for a series. 

A snippity landlady with a successful dermatologist husband is transformed into a financially strapped widow living through the beneficence of her now late husband’s in-laws.  Even the (comedically intended) theme song was a downer, its payoff after an upbeat Mame-type set-up including, “Who charms the clams on Fisherman’s Wharf right out of their shells?” concludes, “Phyllis… it sure isn’t you.”

Compare that with “You’re going to make it after all” and you can immediately see what the show’s up against.

Still… Cloris Leachman, decorated writers, a strong supporting cast (including the wonderful Barbara Colby who was tragically killed early in the show’s production.)  By conventional standards, Phyllis appeared earmarked for success.  But the premise was… what exactly was the premise? 

Unlike Seinfeld, Phyllis was a show about nothing… but not in a good way.

Despite a sparklingly beginning and a necessary mid-course structural adjustment, Phyllis’s ratings trended increasingly downward.  The show was finally cancelled after two seasons – a loudly trumpeted though thinly conceived disappointment.

(Note:  I wrote numerous episodes of Phyllis, creating in the process the character of crusty Senior Citizen “Mother Dexter” which, my random research reveals, purportedly kept the series afloat, until the actress (Judith Lowry) playing the grumpy octogenarian passed away.  I had no idea people held that opinion.) 

Primary Lesson Concerning Phyllis’s Demise:  Downbeat characters should never headline their own shows.  {At least not in 1976.}  Inevitably, the obligation of carrying the storyline exposes their negative, “One Trick Pony” limitations.  Thankfully, and wisely, there was no Seinfeld spinoff called Costanza.)

Which brings me to Bull.

A show I liked at the beginning – as I did Phyllis – but by the end of its first season, I was shaking my head and hollering for the check.

Another projected “sure thing.”  Again, with noteworthy auspices:

Writer Paul Attanasio.  (House, Homicide: Life on the Street, movies like Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show.)  Steven Spielberg (Who requires no parenthetical enhancement.)  Dr. Phil McGraw (on whose early career Bull was ostensibly based.)  Actor Michael Weatherly (NCIS, which I have never seen, but its great popularity –  as with Mary and Cloris Leachman – made Weatherly ripe for promotion to a show-carrying opportunity.)

Bull is about a successful, high tech jury consultant whose firm-provided targeted data and psychological insights create courtroom strategies to help their accused clients win their cases.

I enjoyed the Bull pilot, though I have an ideological antipathy towards jury consultants.  Strategizing an “edge” for your client relates tangentially, if at all, to the achievement of justice.  Plus, you have to be rich to afford one, an indigent defendant provided with an attorney if they cannot afford one, but not provided with a jury consultant. 

But that’s just extraneous blah-blah.  I am talking about the show here, which, as the season progressed, muted my enthusiasm with its noticeable decline.

An early episode involves a female commercial airline pilot accused of negligence whose exoneration is achieved by exposing the jury’s unconscious “gender bias” towards female pilots.

That one was interesting. 

But surprisingly quickly, the show got noticeably “stunty”, the way hit sitcoms like Happy Days and Everybody Loves Raymond went on fancy “vacations.”  The thing is, those shows did that late into their runs, when they were running out of ideas.  The “red flagging” difference is that this was Bull veered precariously from its series template in its debuting season.

Suddenly the trial itself is no longer front and center.  It was like those Scottish engineers on those old-time steam engines, somebody in charge was shouting, “We need more pooer!” 

So now, instead of just cliff-hanging courtroom combat, It’s that Bull’s ex-wife – or nemesis archrival – is a central participant.  Or his assistant’s former mentor.  Or another assistant’s old boyfriend. 

A driverless car runs crazily out of control.  A desperate woman blows up Bull’s facility, taking the trapped cast of series regulars hostage.

A “hostage” show?  That’s like a “Fifth Season” episode.  And they’re doing it “Episode Eleven.”

It’s crazy.  Where the heck have they left to go? 

The plan seemed shortsighted and futile.  How many regulars will have significant people from their past requiring the urgent necessity of a jury consultant? 

Some series get better as they discover their natural “groove.”  To my sensibilities, Bull seemed to be getting progressively worse.  Where’s the depth of characterization?  Where’s the narrative relatability?  Where’s the credible acting?  (Although substandard writing can leave even capable actors vulnerable to embarrassment.  After all, the disheartening dialogue is emerging out of their mouths.)

Still, Bull’s remains a quantifiable success.  (As, at this juncture, was Phyllis.)  Though there are some indications of audience erosion.

I feel worried for the producers.  (Which is the kind of empathetic person I am.)
They have this glorious opportunity.  But their show is demonstrably leaking oil.

And what about that title?  I am starting to wonder.  Is this show subliminally “bull”?

(Vindicating Credibility Note:  I recently had lunch with an hour-show writing acquaintance whose luminous credits include House, The Mentalist and The Good Wife who confided that he had turned down working on Bull, realizing, earlier than I did it, its inescapable stumbling block; namely that it’s shiny balloon filled with camouflagingly hot air.  So forget me.  A certifiable hotshot thinks it’s no good.  I feel eminently vindicated.  Though I take no pleasure in my assessment.) 

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Woe Is Them - Tee Hee"

Shameful Confession Off The Top:  I get a lip-smacking enjoyment watching bamboozlers feel the pressure.

Network television executives.

This time of the year, they put on a suit and they go to a theater, where they try to convince advertisers to buy commercial time on new TV series the advertisers have only seen snippets of.  It’s like “Mail Order Bride”, but they show you the ankle.

No shocking surprise here.  It’s hucksters.   An American institution.  Hucksters sold people the West without mentioning the Indians.  Or if they did, it was,

“They won’t hurt you.  They’re colorful.”

You have to be nervous, demanding “up front” agreements – hence the annual event’s appellation, “The Up Fronts” – for series audiences have yet to show they’ll tune in for, armed only with bright smiles and catchy slogans, like,

“We Fooled ‘Em Last Year – Let’s Do It Again!”

Showing supreme confidence in untested merchandise, however, is the subsidiary stressor in this enterprise.  There are considerably bigger fish to have nightmares about. 

Put simply, viewers in growing numbers, especially the highly coveted younger viewers, have abandoned television for the Internet and, I don’t know, trying new drugs.  (That might be gratuitous, and if it is, I apologize.  For all I know, they might be perfectly content with the old drugs.)

Going back to the point… quickly...

While constantly tinkering with demographic subtleties, networks substantially set their advertising rates the way they always have – based on how many people are watching the shows, the more people watching, the higher the ad rates.

The problem is, and everyone knows it…

Less people are watching. 

Studies indicate that the 18-49 viewership alone has plummeted from 36% to 28%.  That’s a drop of… lemme see… 

That’s a really big drop.

Compounding the agony, many remaining viewers now subscribe to services allowing them to “fast-forward” through the commercials.  (By the way, even at the beginning we had a way to avoid watching commercials.  We called it, “going to the bathroom.”)

Despite this cascading erosion of viewership, television executives have to buoyantly pretend at the “Up Fronts” that everything is beautiful.  It isn’t.  It’s the The Wizard of Oz backwards.

“Pay no attention to the man (or woman) in front of the curtain.”

It’s just the craziest thing I have ever heard.  Networks are selling their customers a sieve they confidently proclaim can hold water.  Horse traders hawking a three-legged pony, trumpeting the cost-saving advantage of “one less horseshoe.” 

You don’t need Jimmy Kimmel at these shindigs.  It’s like, “Send in the clowns;
Don’t bother they’re here.”

Networks, asking advertisers to pay more money for smaller audiences.  That’s

“Buy M & M’s.  There’s less in the box but we’re charging you extra!

Maybe if you say it with gusto people go with the enthusiasm.

“Less for more?  Sign me up!”

The reasonable version of the argument:

“Yes, the size of viewership is smaller.  (Which does not mean that current television viewers are shorter.)  But television still brings more people to one venue than anywhere else.”

The reasonable rebuttal:

“It’s less people!  And you’re jacking up the prices?”

I get a headache just thinking about that.  I mean, how does that feel, being that “Front Person”, peddling that malarkey?

“What did you do today, Mommy?”

“I went on stage and lied to thousands of people.”

(Who are fully aware they are being lied to.  Then they all have drinks and eat meatballs on a toothpick.)

I have no idea how they do it – selling a pea and charging for a pumpkin.

Paraphrasing what I once head-shakingly proclaimed about my own (arguably more admirable) line of endeavor,


“There must be an easier to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"The 'Coincidence' Guy"

Or is that all of us and I feel unfairly – and inaccurately – singled out?

coincidence: a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.

Oh yeah.  Here we go.

To me, “coincidence” is an evading euphemism for “I have no idea how that happened.”

I admit there are some actual coincidences in life.  But since the concept “coincidence” is readily available, a lot of unexplainable happenstances are lazily consigned to that tenuous classification.  A “remarkable concurrence of events” pops onto your personal radar screen, for which you have no satisfactory rationale?

“It’s a coincidence.”

AKA: “It’s an mystery.”

AKA:  “It is God’s will.”

To which I say, “Thank you for three generically unsatisfying explanations.” 

For me, though perhaps not for people on a more reliably sound mental health footing, a coincidence is like the “Cold Cases” on those police shows.  Unwilling to accept “It’s a coincidence”, I cannot comfortably rest until that unsubstantiated file is conclusively stamped “Solved.”  (Do they actually do that?  They should.  What a rewarding sense of “closure” that would be, slamming a big “Solved” stamp onto the appropriate folder.  What a powerful incentive to keep going.  “Go for the ‘Stamp’!”)  (This unsolicited suggestion is offered to our law enforcement community free of charge.  I simply request that you not to call our house anymore, soliciting money for your police dogs.  What do police dogs need money for, anyway?)

As you can tell, I have an intense bee in my bonnet about coincidences. 
For me, coincidences are monumentally annoying, your mind ablaze pondering the question, “How can that be?”, while waiting cerebral concerns, urgent and otherwise, inevitably pay the price.

How can you think straight while in the throes of grappling with a “coincidence”?

I just sighed.          

“An expression of frustration and an alerting signal to move things along.”

Okay.

“With your example of a recent coincidence.”

I know where I am going with this.

“Well then for heaven’s sakes, go there!”

I’m going!  I’m going!

I just sighed again.

Okay.

I have had this TV in my home office for, like, twenty-five years.  It’s an RCA, giving you some idea of its chronological vintage.  One day, the TV suddenly stopped being in color, its projected picture now showing exclusively in black-and-white.

Fine.  It’s an ancient TV; its demise is hardly unexpected.  No rush to replace it, however.  I primarily listen to the classical music channel on that TV while I’m working.  So no imminent concern.  Who cares if you listen to Mozart in black-and-white?

Moving on with this scintillating scenario…

When our daughter and her husband purchase a new TV for their house, they offer their relatively new superannuated TV to us, and we appreciatively accept.  The arranged plan is to install the upgraded gift TV in our bedroom, relocating our current bedroom
TV to my office, where it will replace my deteriorating RCA, now broadcasting exclusively in black-and-white.

They arrive with the gift TV; we immediately play “Musical Televisions.”  The gift TV is duly installed in our bedroom, our former bedroom TV is hooked up in my office, while the displaced RCA sits redundantly on the carpet, ready for donation to our “charity of choice”, Helping Hands for the Blind.  Whose recipients will be minimally inconvenienced by a TV, playing only in black-and-white.

I am really excited.  Once again, I have a fully functioning TV in my office.  The device ready to go.  We turn the replacement TV on.

It plays only in black-and-white.

Well, that was a disappointment.

I immediately call the cable company.  It’s simple logic.  If two installed TV’s play only in black-and-white, the problem’s the cable box in my office, not the two TVs, malfunctioning in an identical fashion, right?  I mean, it only makes sense.

Three days later – between the hours of ten and twelve – the company’s cable technician arrives.  The technician’s name is Manuel.  He is extremely capable.

For the first time in months, courtesy of Manuel’s technological expertise, there is a chromatic picture emanating from the TV playing in my office.  Not content that all is now well – and since a man who might well know the answer is standing in front of me – I ask Manuel’s expert opinion concerning exactly what happened.

Though not one hundred percent certain, Manuel patiently hypothesizes that my office’s original RCA TV was indeed broken, and that the newly installed replacement TV was hooked up incorrectly to the cable box.

To which my immediate response was,

“Really?”

Of all the various malfunctions a TV can succumb to, two distinct and separate televisions presenting identical symptoms for two entirely different reasons?

What a coincidence!

Another example, which I shall skeletalize for the sake of brevity and minimal annoyance.  For you, and for me, having to listen to it again.

Having tested positive for a disrupting intestinal condition for which I was successfully treated, a year or so later, the identical symptoms return.  Two days after the office-TV mystification, a subsequent test for that intestinal condition comes back negative.

Summing up for the confused and the incredulous, I am now experiencing the same symptoms as I did for an intestinal condition a reliable test reports I no longer have.  (The doctor told me, “Let me know if the condition returns.”  I told him, “How will I know?”)

So there you have it.  A man supremely distressed by such occurrences experiences two bizarre inexplicabilities virtually back-to-back.

Look at that.


Another coincidence.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"Missing Colors (Conclusion) (Although Is Anything, In Fact, Ever Really Concluded)?"

A provocative insight entered my head last night while I was attending a Dodgers game.  That’s the great thing about baseball.  You can contemplate philosophical issues between pitches.  (Unlike football, where between-play conversation leans more frequently towards, “A leg shouldn’t be pointing that way, should it?”)

More about the intellectual breakthrough I experienced sitting in great seats along the third base line shortly.  But first, a brief recap.

“Previously on Just Thinking…”

I was discussing my abandoned faith in the cable news outlets I once assiduously relied on, not because they did not know things that turned out to be determinative in the election but, judging by their oblivious reaction, because they alarmingly did not know they didn’t know.

I went on to reference a new book entitled The Knowledge Illusion, which argues that, when it comes to actual “knowing”, our accumulation of personal knowledge  derives not from self-generated insights and understandings but from others, primarily our most significant peer group, whose beliefs we dutifully adopt so they won’t kill us or at least withhold invitations to their kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

(The book has an encouraging upside, as all books wishing to be popular must – there are no Best Sellers entitled How To Be Extraordinarily Depressed.  Absorbing an externally assembled body of knowledge makes it unnecessary for us to continuously reinvent the wheel… in every imaginable arena.  We simply internalize the prevailing culture’s “How To” manual and we’re off to the races.  The “price of admission”, however, is jettisoning the flattering illusion that we invariably “think for ourselves.”  Not bad for not having to create the refrigerator from scratch.) 

I consider the book’s thesis between “Ball One” and “Ball Two”, only I turn it around, pondering not how we know things but, in the context of the cable news media’s hopeless performance during the election, how we don’t.

This enticing intellectual exercise, which came to mind while Dodger fans in my vicinity were swatting a beach ball, brings me inevitably to Judd Apatow.

You see the connection, don’t you?

Let me spell it out for you, just in case.

I don’t know if you remember Knocked Up – the film played in theaters ten years, or, for a heightened perspective on the interval, three upgrades of “Smart Phones” ago.

In Knocked Up, a spontaneous one-night stand between Ben Stone, a shlubby slacker – hard to pronounce, though nonetheless accurate – and Alison Scott, a knockout media striver, leads to an unplanned pregnancy and ultimate connected relationship.  For me, Knocked Up was the most structurally sound of Apatow’s screenplays.

But something bothered me about it.

Fundamentally, Knocked Up is a fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, with unprotected intercourse rather than dancing.  Although Knocked Up was enthusiastically reviewed, there remained the unavoidable issue of, “Really?  Her… and him?”

I know.  They’re doing “opposites attract.”  But it’s a difficult sell.  Are not Ben and Alison a little too opposite?  Is she not too beautiful and upwardly mobile for us to comfortably accommodate the idea of “Her… and him”?  I know “willing suspension of disbelief” but come on!

I considered how to narrow the “Ew!” gap, reduce the insurmountable chasm of their multi-leveled inequality.

The solution involved Alison’s job – the host of an “Entertainment Tonight” type of vehicle.  Knocked Up made it an unquestioned “given” that she was successful.  But it occurred to me, “Successful at what?

There’s a scene in the hospital in which the impending parents have a big fight.  If provided the opportunity, I would have advised Judd Apatow to adopt this ameliorating inclusion.

To provide a more balancing credibility for the relationship, the guy should go after her career, refuting her claim that she’s a “journalist”, saying something like, “Journalist?  Hey, it’s not like your Christiane Anampour reporting from Afghanistan.  You’re more like this spokesmodel for the new Volvo but instead of a car it’s Justin Timberlake.”    

I believe that would have helped.  Take Alison down a peg – reduce the troublesome chasm.

Why didn’t Judd Apatow come up with that solution himself?

He couldn’t.

Because he could not see what I saw. 

To Judd Apatow, coming of age in a media-crazed culture, a host job on E! Entertainment is enviably important.  But in the overall scheme of things, even the generation I am not close to being a part of would ultimately concede…

It’s not.

The woman’s blathering “eye candy” with a hand mic.

But if that evaluation not in your mind – because, borrowing from The Knowledge Illusion – you see how it all ties together? – your peer group cohort considers the job “hotsy-totsy”,

It never occurs to you that it isn’t.

Moving to a more meaningful arena…

During the 2016 campaign, the non-Fox cable news commentators believed that reason, evidence and personal decency would ultimately prevail.  Why wouldn’t they?  It always had.  And their peer group cohort – which, incidentally, is also my peer group cohort – unequivocally backed them up.

This cultural validation led the non-Fox cable news commentators to argue reasonably and sensibly day after day, unaware of a necessary caveat – because it was literally “inconceivable” to them – that in this particular election, although the tangible evidence against the Republican candidate was overwhelmingly persuasive…

“That may, in fact, not matter.”

“Passionate intensity uber alles” was not an available alternative on the palette.  Hence, the title of this offering,

“Missing Colors.”

It’s like being congenitally colorblind. 

You just don’t see it. 

It’s nobody’s fault. 

That is simply the way it is.

Though that understanding does not stop me from blaming them for leading me hideously astray.

Which is why I don’t watch them anymore.

Why should I?


Would you trust a color-blind passenger saying, “You can go now; it’s green”?