The Joy of Jeopardy!

Last summer, I had to take a class on the Biology and Psychology of gender and sexuality. Most times at my university, it is rare to venture outside one’s own department, either academically or socially, but this was a required course, and I was the only film student in the group. This last fact was vividly demonstrated, as we were required to give presentations on subjects of our choosing related to gender and sexuality. Not only were the vast majority of presentations awkward and unprofessional (a genuine shock to someone who spends most of his day with fellow performers), but, as most of the students in the class majored in either Nursing or Criminal Justice, almost every presentation was either about sexual assault or venereal disease.

This was fascinating. Not only had the professor allowed students to cover the same subjects over and over, but the students unselfconsciously ran with it, inflicting upon their captive audience a constant loop of graphic descriptions of violence and physical degradation. Not to say that these issues aren’t important; they certainly are, and Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who need to be educated about them; but when these are the only things you hear about, over and over, day after day, you start to go batty. Towards the end of the term, a woman sitting next to me and I watched in awe as two more students loaded up their PowerPoint presentations: one was on sexual assault, one was on venereal diseases. My classmate and I instantly broke into uncontrollable laughter. We’ve been friends ever since.

Even within the film department, you’re liable to run into people whose interests and fields of knowledge are wildly at variance with your own. Just this week, one of my professors asked the class what the first animated feature film was; one student guessed Toy Story.

This is all a very roundabout way of pointing out that in America, and I would guess California in particular, most people, even college-educated professionals, tend to be very knowledgeable about one thing (typically their chosen field of work) and startlingly ignorant about everything else. In Britain, everyone from cabinet ministers to taxi drivers can tell you the latin names of their houseplants, or give detailed descriptions of the Battle of Trafalgar, but when I volunteer any historical fact about Los Angeles (after all, why would I be expected to know about the place where I work and go to school?), everyone says the same thing: “you should be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy, for those of you abroad, is a syndicated American game show in which three contestants compete against each other, answering trivia clues in the form of a question (this is really just a formality, though; all one must do to gain points in the form of dollar values is answer a clue with “What/who is X?”) and wager carefully to end up with the most money. The current version of Jeopardy is hosted by Alex Trebek, mainstream celebrity in his own right and a god among game show hosts, and has made a few stars out of its contestants. In 2004, the show’s rules changed to allow champions to keep playing as long as they kept winning. Almost immediately, Ken Jennings came onto the scene, won 74 straight games and over $3 million, and is now widely respected as a public intellectual. This season has produced two star players of its own in Julia Collins and Arthur Chu.

The game has varying levels of difficulty. There’s the Tournament of Champions, where returning stars play against each other, and the questions are accordingly much harder than regular play. Then there are college and high school versions that are a little easier, and of course Celebrity Jeopardy! which is absurdly easy; even by those accommodating standards, a few supposedly smart people have shown themselves to be complete morons, to the delight of dedicated viewers.

Jeopardy! is an exception in this country. It’s taken seriously. It has none of the cheese of Wheel of Fortune, nor the silly dramatics of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The premise is almost preposterously straightforward, and the tone of the show is equally understated. The contestants dress up. Most interestingly, Jeopardy! not only celebrates knowledge, but well-roundedness, in a country that adores crippling overspecialization. And it’s a hit. Game shows come and go in waves, but Jeopardy’s been going strong for thirty straight years.

It survives because it’s easy to play along. And that’s the thing. Anytime I feel bad about the country I call home, I watch Jeopardy! I think about how many people have played, that it’s gone on so long that most people in America know someone who’s been on. I think about the millions of people playing along, earnestly watching to see if the contestants share some of their own knowledge. And I realize that there are a lot more Americans like me than anyone would suspect.

So why aren’t they in film school!?

Being Colonial: Why I Love PBS

Originally, I was going to post about why, in the words of Sean Lock, “You should never read the bottom half of the internet.” (Here’s a post from Sally O’Rouke about why maybe sometimes you should).

But that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon and in any case everybody knows that. Instead, I’m going to talk about British television in America.

British TV has always been popular in the United States, but because of cultural cringe we tend to be undiscriminating. Ask an otherwise cultured American his or her opinion of EastEnders and try not to vomit from the praise.

Because six-episode series are too short for major networks to broadcast, most UK content ends up on PBS, the national broadcaster. PBS isn’t like the BBC, it’s way less powerful and critically underfunded. It’s also locally run, so programming can vary wildly from town to town. Most programming consists of travelogues, local interest shows, bizarre ethereal documentaries (the subject of a future post) and material purchased from the UK. The affiliates tend to broadcast the cheapest shows they can get the rights to, and so it was that Keeping Up Appearances was a staple of my childhood.

Our local PBS affiliate was the inept-but-somehow-still-prestigious KCET, which went under a couple of years ago. Now we get Orange County’s KOCE. The station is owned by the Orange County Register, a paper that makes the Wall Street Journal look like Pravda, but it’s a shining example of what public television should be. The production values and imported content are on par with BBC2 at the very least. They even broadcast the original version of The Office (PBS doesn’t have to worry about censorship past 10PM because there are no advertisers to scare away).

Like the BBC, PBS is stereotyped as a niche network for highbrow audiences, though in reality everybody watches it. Television ratings are the province of commercial networks, so not many people know that PBS actually regularly outperforms NBC, the CW, and in certain markets even CBS. When the second series of Sherlock premiered last month, it was watched by 5.5 million people. On Sundays, a night already crowded with prestige shows, it was third in its timeslot!

PBS, you see, can always be relied upon for event programming. It gave the world Ken Burns, who isn’t so much a man as a genre. It’s the network of Sesame Street. And while a lot of their original content is dreadful, the journey is always interesting and I’ve never regretted watching it (with the sole exception of Barney). Even though so much of it is imported from the UK, there are few better ways at understanding American culture.

The Clash – “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”

When: 2 May 2008
Where: Lake Avenue at Walnut
Who: Nobody
Weather: Warm, clear

Considering she lived 300 miles away, Jeannie was the perfect high school girlfriend. She wasn’t the kind of girl I imagined being with up to that point, but I hadn’t really known or cared until I met someone who loved Arctic Monkeys as much as I did. She introduced me to a whole new concept– one-season wonders. It was she who introduced me to Firefly, and Pushing Daisies was still on, but she was certain it would be canceled. It was just that good, she said. It had to go.

Another thing we had in common was Doctor Who– everybody at my high school watched it, but we were an unusual bunch. I hadn’t imagined that what had previously been a cult phenomenon in the US might now have a further reach. I didn’t have cable at home, so I went to my Bubby’s on South Lake to watch it. It was Series Four– not the greatest moment of the show, but a valued experience nonetheless. But it was late at night, and Pasadena was going through a crime wave.

I cautiously made my way home nonetheless, and as I was going through my Clash phase, Sandinista was my soundtrack of choice. It was just about perfect, walking among the empty bank towers, listening closely to some of the creepier lines…

Next: “I am Gopher Boy, pondering reality.”

Death Cab for Cutie: “Soul Meets Body”

When: October 2005
Where: Outside San Marino Fish Market
Who: My mother
Weather: Cool, partly cloudy

When I hear this song, I think of Lost.

The first time I went to the San Marino Fish Market was a year earlier. I got off the bus from school at Huntington Drive, expecting to take the 79 bus the rest of the way. Typical for the time, the 79 bus went an hour without showing. I looked at the bus bench on the other side of the Boulevard and noticed an advertisement for the new show Lost.

“What a shitty-looking show,” I thought to myself, recalling tv spots for what looked like a really expensive, overwrought survival soap opera.* Of course, Lost was in reality the exact type of show my friends and I would enjoy, but that fact terrified ABC executives. When Lost came on the air, all acknowledgment that such a show existed vanished.

Skip ahead one year. I was a design major at DBTI, and wasn’t going well because we had to take a construction class and I had no idea what I was doing. To dull the pain, I started talking to my classmate Ethan about this weird, crazy, awesome show I was watching the night before, which he informed me was Lost, now beginning its second season. For the show, as for me, it was the breakout period. No longer would I settle in to watch Reba just because it was on. I was a professional appreciator, and my tastes would be king at my high school. Though to be fair, the class president and star football player was also a huge fan of Doctor Who.

It was with this sense of promise that we pulled onto the curb for another Thursday-night dinner.

*Not including the television’s most loathed character Kate.

Next: Stalin smiles and Hitler laughs. Churchill claps Mao Tse Tung on the back.

“24” For Better or Worse

When I was a freshman in high school, I took a miserable electronics course with a teacher who looked like a troll and sounded like Tom Waits on helium. During lectures I fell asleep. In the lab I was competent, but slow paced, and the combination of a never-ending rainstorm and the tinny sounds of Steely Dan made freshman electronics a hotbed of hostility.

Later that quarter, still raining, the teacher decided to show us 24. The guy was a big fan of Jack Bauer’s techniques before the torture memos even surfaced, and I was intrigued, albeit for different reasons. In 2005, network dramas were an embarrassment, and my TV watching habits were limited to Arrested Development. And while I’d known of 24 since it came on, I was surprised to see how effectively it played out. So I started watching the DVDs, but things went downhill fast.

Here for your enjoyment is a list of what made 24 good, and what killed it.

Better: Kiefer Sutherland

I could list pros and cons with any number of actors on this show, but since Kiefer Sutherland is the main star, he gets extra points for embodying a character that you want to root for, but just as often hate. Jack Bauer’s frequent wrongheadedness makes him human, and in the hands of a lesser actor could have gone very badly.

Worse: Kim

Notice I didn’t say Elisha Cuthbert, because the problem with the character should be blamed first and foremost on the writers. “Kidnapping the Hero’s Daughter” is a secondary plot familiar to people who anyone who’s seen a lot of 80s and 90s action movies, but her gratuitous involvement was forced, dragged down the main plots, and made the show overall less rewatchable.

Better: Diversity

While there have been plenty of shows about terrorism, 24 was able to show all different kinds– the first season centered around a personal vendetta, the second an attempt to fabricate a Middle Eastern War. Season three stands out to me especially. By fast forwarding three years, introducing a whole group of new and genuinely interesting characters, and introducing a biological threat that built on earlier seasons, the series became ripe for an expanded universe (including a prequel game that could just as well have been another season). Unfortunately, even these seasons fell prey to…

Worse: Soap Opera Antics

Because of the real-time nature of the show, B and C plots often focused on personal conflicts that paled in comparison to the real action. When the writers realized this, they created even more sprawling, overblown scenarios that didn’t matter. Most of this revolved around the White House and David Palmer in particular, but notable exceptions include Terri Bauer’s amnesia, Kim’s babysitting gig, and all of Chloe’s family problems.

Worse: Success

In the end, success killed 24. With each successive season, the show became better known hand transformed into ridiculous political argument for gross human rights abuses. I mean, I love Breaking Bad but I’m not gonna go cook meth. This was made all the more glaring when the show recycled plots and upped the ante, losing viewers in the process.

In the end it was their loss; after the fourth season Lost went from enjoyable trifle to breakout hit, and ultimately expanded the possibilities of network drama. Like 24, Lost was written to be watched only once, but their better successors didn’t make that mistake.

Background Music returns in two days, see you then!

Beck – “Mixed Bizness”

When: May 2000
Where: The TV room
Who: Nobody
Weather: Unknown

Beck is an incredible artist. He can take things that haunt nightmares and turn them into something awesome. And as he proved here, he can even turn one of my Sunday night migraines into a fond memory.

In the spring of 2000, the Fox network added two new TV shows. One of them was a deeply personal laugh track sitcom called Titus. The other was Malcolm in the Middle, the first single-camera comedy since The Larry Sanders Show, and the first ever on a broadcast network.

At the time, Fox was still cruising on its status as the “edgy” cult network, and promoted for May Sweeps accordingly by advertising only Malcolm and Titus that night. Clips from the shows were interwoven by shots of Frankie Muñiz and Christopher Titus smirking, all along to a seemingly old song I long believed to be called “Turn it Up.” They showed me.

“Malcolm in the Middle and Titus. Turn it Up!”

Next: Fourth grade ends with a bang.

Pokémon Theme Song

When: 7:00 AM, June 1999
Where: The TV Room
Who: Nobody
Weather: Clear

Children’s television was and continues to be the last refuge of television’s old ways. Just Nick and Disney have harshly-lit, videotaped sitcoms, Pokémon had a minute-long opening theme.

I came to Pokémon late, when it was at its peak as a phenomenon that inexplicably enveloped all aspects of life, like Batman in the late sixties. I caught up that summer on early morning reruns on UPN and I was hooked. I can still do a perfect imitation of Jigglypuff, which is really just my Morrissey on helium.

"Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it's serious..."Next: Jeff Daniels channels Todd Rundgren