New vellum in the Tome…

(from Xanga)

So, I haven’t updated this in a while … and although I was considering just shutting it down, I had second thoughts (and a friend’s encouragement) to keep it around.  So, we’ll see how that goes … even if it just degenerates into copying bits of papers since that will be the only thing I’m writing, i.e. putting creative energy into, in the near future.

And speaking of the near future, let’s talk about the near past:  since graduating from Denison I spent the summer at home, working and reading Paul Fussell (I’ve become more of a curmudgeon already!), and am now working toward a master’s at the University of Chicago.  Being a one-year program (in the social sciences), I’m effectively a freshman and a senior at the same time.  An interesting contradiction in identity, yes, but in practical terms it also involves writing a master’s thesis by the end of March (with the possibility of revisions until May) and basically starting within the first two months of the academic year.  And no topic as yet.  Good times!

Other than that, it’s just me and Lucy on the south side of Chicago.  And some plants – one of which perks up pretty substantially at night, while the leaves practical hug the pot it’s in during the day.

Oh, and a few of the current-running commercials I’m current enamored with:
* The Snickers commercial with the guy singing a song about the candy bar to an employee in a carpet store:  “… prancing nougat in the meadow, sings a song of satisfaction to the world …”  The employee, amazed by the power of the Snickers he’s currently eating:  “… the world!”
* The Dunkin Donuts commercial with people singing at their TV, specifically the woman singing “That beard of bees, it has no power over me.”
* The Gap commercial where Audrey Hepburn, in her famous interpretive-dance scene in “Funny Face,” dances to “Back in Black” to advertise their “skinny black pants.”  I’ve heard mixed reviews of this from other people, particularly using a dead celebrity for commercial purposes, but I have to admit I was taken in.
* This one is dated now, but I still love it:  the Verizon V-Cast commercial that featured a guy on a street corner singing to “Urgent,” and demonstrating that you got a two-for-one deal if you signed up for their plan that included a phone.  I haven’t been able to find that one anywhere now, probably because no one else cares about it, but I already look on it with nostalgia.
* The teasers for Mr. T’s “I Pity the Fool.”  “In every city, there’s fools to pity!”  This technically isn’t a commercial for a product like the others, but since I don’t get TV Land it’s the closest I’ll get to the amazing phenomenon that is this show, other than the online spots.  I’m not sure whether it’s Mr. T himself, or the idea of Mr. T having a self-help (or rather him-help) reality TV show, that has really quantifiably made my life better.  I say “quantifiably” because Mom sent me the cover of the TV Guide, which features Mr. T promoting his new show and standing by a caution/warning roadsign that reads FOOLS with a “no” sign over it.  I know such a sign doesn’t actually exist, but I’m not entirely convinced that it shouldn’t.
* Okay now I’m going to cheat entirely and invalidate the integrity of this list by including anything involving John Hodgman, including his recent appearances on “The Daily Show” (though to my knowledge, not yet on “The Colbert Report”).  All personal feelings aside, I have to respect him as the leading authority on nonsense and bizarre fictions.  Plural.

In place of thoughts on letter-writing and academia (which I will hopefully get to in future posts, the former probably still in letter form to C and J), I’ll include a few thoughts on 80s (more precisely, late 80s to mid 90s) television.  After E and C left, which included a lovely dinner and a couple of episodes of “Scrubs” (first season; considering investing in a copy myself), I turned on the television for some background while I cleaned up and started thinking about what to do for tomorrow.  On Nick at Nite was a show that I hadn’t thought about for a very long time, “Designing Women” (Dixie Carter et al, late 80s).  Having had only standard network TV when I was growing up, I remember distinctly watching certain shows back when they were on ABC, NBC, whatever, though not really anticipating the “next” episode.  I guess I’ve never really become attached to a serial show (i.e. making a point to watch episodes in order, or see them as they come out), with the most recent exception of “The Daily Show”/”The Colbert Report,” which should really only half-count because it’s not a show with a plot, per se.  Although Colbert is building his own continuities and changes – the stained glass window, the portrait featuring his previous portrait which featured a portrait, the 435 part series about Congress … constructed to keep us watching?  Or just for the hell of it?

Anyway, I remember shows like “Designing Women,” “Roseanne,” “Perfect Strangers,” “Family Matters,” “Doogie Howser,” and of course the one whose place last in the list should be considered a place of honor, “Star Trek:  the Next Generation.”  (Children’s and animated shows, which definitely have their own place in my personal nostalgic reminisces and current tastes, will not be treated here; also, I would include “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which I adore, but have only come to this taste recently, thus it doesn’t exactly fit with the particular list of show I’m remembering.)  And I started thinking about how much more I enjoyed these shows than most shows on TV today – I wondered, is that because I haven’t “gotten into” any, like the phenomenon of “Gray’s Anatomy”?  Is it because I have a tendency to remember fondly when I do remember things of childhood, so I’m projecting a gloss of charm onto these old shows?  Or because they simply were better than most things that currently air today?

Then I thought, that last one’s a bit too nebulous to handle, so I focused instead on what I liked about these shows.  And I think the thing I have to conclude is, I just like the characters.  With the possible exception of “Perfect Strangers,” which is the most purely farcical of the ones I mentioned above, these shows are considered “sit coms” but might be more properly labelled “problem comedies.”  That is, in recent exposure to these shows I’ve come to realize although not in every episode, the shows dealt with genuine social problems or issues of the day.  The episode of DW, for example, was one involving Mary Jo’s being sexually harassed by a shady male client, ending with an almost-rape in which she defends herself and manages to knock him out in time to escape.  When I browsed the IMDB episode list, I was further struck by how many episodes dealt with divorce, AIDS, homosexuality, cancer, death, etc. etc.  The “Big Issues.”  Even TNG, which I’m not sure would be classified as a “sit-com” (or really, what it would be called at all on the drama-comedy spectrum, sci-fi-ness aside), deals with such issues.  Then, in contrast, I can’t help but think of shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “King of Queens,” or the other 5,000 varieties of the “dumb guy, hot wife” Ralph Kramden “Honeymooners” set-up.  I used to just think they were awful, but more accurately, I realized 1) I’m not married, and don’t have kids, so I can’t relate; 2) they don’t go anywhere, really.  The same set-up of funny abuse and family conflict has its place, but not on my television.

My statement above would seem to put “Roseanne” above the other family comedies I listed as being inadequate; and for the most part, there might not be much difference.  One thing to be said about the Connors, however, is that their dysfunction seemed to always border on a socioeconomic, peculiarly Midwest reality – the “average, working-class family.”  The show, unapologetically prole (in Fussell’s sense of the word), was somehow always thought-provoking to me.  Perhaps I had associated it with what I knew outside of Columbus:  northwest Indiana and the Upper Peninsula, both decidedly working-class regions.  If I couldn’t relate to it on an individual level, I could at least by observation.  (If that sounds hopelessly snobbish, it is not intended; I was just unable to express myself more clearly at 1AM).

It also gave me respect for “Seinfeld,” however, in light of this idea of “issue-related” comedies – which, admittedly, have just as much farce and absurdity layered on top of such commentary – being “a show about nothing,” it places itself in opposition to this idea that a television show has to be relevant, be contemporary, be aware.  It became “contemporary” in itself, but only insofar as it portrayed the neuroses of everyday life.

Social awareness aside, however, I suppose I still enjoy these shows because I’ve become attached to the characters – I remember their personalities, their histories (to a varying degree), and to some extent, what’s going to happen to them.  Even if I can’t relate to them, I think I’ve come to look on seeing these old episodes as reminiscing about them, or being reminded of the particular episodes (in the other sense) in their lives to which I, the viewer, was privy – I still have an image of Charlene, the blonde on DW, thinking of her (husband? boyfriend at the time?) Bill at Christmas, when he was overseas, ostensibly before Gulf I.  I did a quick internet search and can’t even find which episode I was thinking of, but the emotional response still comes (even if the actual memory is hazy).  I’m always one who claims to not watch television (or at least, not much), but for all the negative things to be said about the place of television in our society, its power as a storyteller is no less for its lack of interaction among character/narrator and audience.  Even TNG – enthusiasm for which is seen as a good social indicator of geekhood – is more than battle-and-stars science fiction; the characters, their adventures and foibles and amusing behaviors and moments of vulnerability, keep me coming back.

I’m increasingly aware that the logic in this rambling is at best, fraying as I continue, so I’ll add thoughts on two more shows I’ve come to enjoy, one “ancient” and one “modern”:  “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and “Scrubs.”  FP, I have to say, is a great show, not only for its comedy but for its moral ambiguity.  This is not to say the show itself does not have a sense of right and wrong; indeed, many of Will’s antics and choices run up against more than Uncle Phil, but that special kind of “TV morality” implicit in the telling of the story and its consequences.  Unlike many shows of that kind (family-centered comedies), however, a number of episodes end with Will’s (or another’s) choices either unaddressed or unresolved.  The most striking example was Will’s confrontation with his father, who had left him at a young age and who does so again when Will is prepared to live and travel with him.  Will’s anger and disappointment is met by the support of Uncle Phil, but there the episode ends:  no reconciliation, no resolution of the tension, not even an answer to Will’s question, “Why did he leave?”  After seeing that episode, I was left affected, not because it had a “good message” but because in that case, it very consciously had no good one to send.

In a similar vein, among the amusing fantasies and ironies in “Scrubs” (many of which are structured around the classic joke of a rhetorical statement or question, followed by an answer – e.g. “How bad can it be?”), there is an underlying desire for realism, as absurd as the idea seems, given the episodic nature of J.D.’s narrative of life in the hospital.  It is in this narrative that surprising insight can be found – structured as it is around J.D.’s accounts of “what he learns” in each episode, humorously played out in the story itself, it seeks (and sometimes finds) personal, and less often social, truth.  The ever-presence of death, in particular, seems to be a recurring theme, and in the show (as in any hospital) not all of the patients end up “okay.”  In one episode a small child dies; in another, Brendan Fraser’s character (too lazy to look up who he was, but he knew Dr. Cox) dies, and the show ends with a funeral.  Though the show is generally absurd, its moments of comedic silence – a still shot of the characters, a focus on a concluding scene or image – are all the more effective when they do occur, especially if you’re not expecting them.  And I think this is what I have come to appreciate most in “Scrubs.”  The general structure of the show’s comedy is fun in itself, but it is those moments of tragedy that really give it something more than simple farce.  That, to me, is good story-telling:  when, like in life, something deeper comes up into everyday life and really arrests you, even for a moment, and makes you think.

And now I’ve definitely reached a low, getting that choked-up feeling thinking about the serious moments of “Scrubs” and then moving on to the more emotional parts of TNG.  Time for bed.

I wish I had brought my copy of “Teleliteracy” (Bianculli), but the link below is the next best thing.  The book is a bit dated in terms of what television it covers, but it definitely gives (at least it gave me) a new appreciation for television in culture.  We may not like the crap on the tube, but the medium is here to stay.

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