Tag Archives: television

Cobra Kai and 80s Nostalgia

A few years back I’d heard vaguely about a new show called Cobra Kai that was a kind of update of the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Specifically, the show starred Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two rivals from the original film. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’m not, as readers know, a big TV person.

Recently, however, I’d heard a lot of buzz about season 3 of the series dropping on Netflix, and the buzz was generally positive. I asked around, and the people I talked to liked it. I needed a bit of a break from the reading I was doing, so yesterday evening, I settled down to watch the first episode.

I can’t think of another television show that has surprised me so much by exceeding my expectations as much as Cobra Kai did. I realize that much of it is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but for me, it hit all of the right buttons. Consider:

In the original film, Daniel LaRusso had just moved to Reseda, California from the east coast (specifically, Newark, NJ). When the movie came out in June 1984, I had been living in Granada Hills, California, not far from Reseda, having moved less than a year earlier from the east coast. So his character, not much older than me at the time, resonated with me, the outsider in a new place.

I went to high school in Reseda, California. My single favorite line from a Tom Petty song is from “Free Fallin'”, when Petty sings, “And it’s a long day, living in Reseda / There’s a freeway running through the yard.” All those places that showed up in the film were familiar to me, as they would be to any kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s.

Watching the Cobra Kai episodes brought all of that back in unexpected ways. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are now in their 50s with kids of their own. (I’m not quite in my 50s but I’m getting very close.) But they are still there in the Valley, and still tied to the people and places they knew growing up. There were clever parallels and reversals that made the show that much more enjoyable. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

The music in the series is perfect, with touchstones to the past. I some ways, I think of the 80s nostalgia in Cobra Kai the way the previous generation likely thought of the 50s nostalgia in Back to the Future. The show is dotted with clever humor. It is, for me at least, a complete delight, a surprise, and I can’t wait to watch more of it. (For those wondering, I’ve made it through the first season, so no spoilers, please).

I’ve been wanting my kids to see the original Karate Kid films for a some time now. They’ve enjoyed other movies from that era–The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Ferris Buller’s Day Off to name a few–and I thought they’d like The Karate Kid and that afterward, the might like Cobra Kai. Having watching it, however, I realize that they’ll lack the sense of nostalgia for the time and place. I think there is something special about The Karate Kid for kids who were around my age and living in the San Fernando Valley in 1984. Everyone else might enjoy the film and the show, but they lack a certain visceral context.

I’m not particularly fond of the trend in movies and television of rehashing what has worked int the past. It shows a decided lack of originality and creativity. But when it is done as well as it has been done in Cobra Kai, it can really be something enjoyable and special.

Tim Conway’s Elephant Story

I know that this is a classic episode of The Carol Burnett Show, and it has floated around the Internet for some time now. But every now and then, when I feel the need for a laugh, something to really revitalize my mood, I’ll turn to a video like this, and it is incredible how well it works for me. They say laughter is the best medicine, and in my book, this video and Tim Conway’s genius (and Vicky Lawrence’s one-liner at the end) prove this adage true. If you are in need of a laugh, well, you’re welcome.

The Golden Age of Television

I keep reading that we are in a golden age of television. Given how little I watch television these days, I have no direct experience to speak from. I assume that what is meant by “golden age of television” is the programs. But as I wander through my house, I might be convinced otherwise. Somehow, we’ve gone from a couple of televisions to 5 televisions. We have a great big one above the fireplace in the living room; one in our bedroom; one in the guest room/exercise room; one in the family room, and one in the playroom/Xbox room, I’m not really sure how this happened.

These are “smart TVs.” I don’t know how smart they really are, but they are slowly making the remote control obsolete, and anything that makes the remote obsolete is a sign of progress. Maybe we should call them “progressive TVs” instead. I’ve counted 9 remotes for these 5 TVs. Fortunately, most of them can be controlled by voice, so the remotes collect dust somewhere between the couch cushions. It took a while, but I no longer feel awkward asking Alexa to turn off the living room TV, or turning the volume down.

I suspect that when someone speaks of the golden age of television, they are not talking about television sets, but the programming. Specifically, I suspect they are talking about the premium programs that seem to be everywhere. We subscribe to HBO (through the cable company), Netflix, Disney+, and as Amazon Prime members, we also have access to Amazon Prime videos. I also managed to get a year of Apple TV+ for free, although I am still not certain how that came about. All of these produce original programming which, because it is subscription-based, has the potential for being high-quality.

I watched the first 2 episodes of The Mandalorian, and while I am a fan of both Star Wars and westerns, I was bored out of my mind after the first two and gave up.

Most of my entertainment comes from reading. I used to turn to television for something that I could dip into without thinking much about it. The problem these days is that most series have morphed into serials. You can’t dip into one episode, without watching the next, and the next, and the next. And thus, binge-watching is born. I don’t want to spend a lot of time watching. I want something where I can allow my brain to relax for 20 or 40 minutes between books without any cliff-hanger. Then, too, television dramas have become too over the top for me. On those instance when I do watch a drama, I often come away feeling totally wiped out.

The TVs, smart and progressive as they may be, are really just superfluous. I can watch Netflix, Disney+, HBO, and Amazon Prime on my phone, iPad, computer, and on the XBox. Indeed, with our cable, I can watch any of the hundreds of channels we get on my phone, iPad, computer, etc. so long as I am connected to the home network. In that kind of environment, we really don’t need one television, let alone five of them.

Golden age or not, I see a promising future for television, both from the devices and the programming. The nice thing I have discovered about watching a movie like Star Wars on the big TV over the fireplace is that, with the lights dimmed, it feels like I’m sitting in a movie theater. I see almost no value to going to the movies these days. No movie is worth the parking headaches, the cost of the tickets, popcorn, hotdog, or soda. I’d just as soon stay home and wait for the movie to be released on one of the streaming services. And yet… when I do go to the movie theater, usually about once a year, it always seems the theater is virtually empty.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution would be to take advantage of the high quality smart TVs and the streaming services and just send the movies direct to the services, forgoing the theater experience entirely. For me, it would be a win. I’m not sure what people get out of the movie theater experience these days, other than being able to see a picture a few months before everyone else. Eliminate that and there’s really no need for movie theaters any more. Imagine being able to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on release day in the comfort of your own house, with the lights dimmed, and munching on food you already have in the pantry. Even better: when you have to get up in the middle of Act 3 because you drank all of those sodas, you can pause the movie to ensure you don’t miss anything. Gone will be the days of millions of middle-aged men scampering back to their seats in a dark theater and whispering to their significant other, “What’d I miss?”

And what of the movie theater? Many will perish, but I imagine there will be one theater nearby that will show second runs of classic picture, and do so in style. It will be an occasion to dress for. Dinner and show will be an elegant affair the way it once was. All things come full circle.

I Can’t Take the Drama

I‘ve written about how I’ve pretty much given up TV. This is nothing new. I haven’t started watching a new show, or continued watching an existing show for two years now. When the Internet explodes with some spoiler bombshell about a television show, I generally have no idea what its about, although I may have heard of the show.

Sometimes, however, the brain needs a break, and by break, I mean something completely mindless. This has occurred more frequently in the last month. I don’t know if this is because of all of the mental energy I spend reading and writing, or if is the result of daily stress, or just a side-effect of getting older. Whatever the reason, I find myself needing to tune out for a while. And so I’ve turned to television.

After the kids are asleep, Kelly and I will watch a show or two. It is almost always one of three shows, always a repeat, and always a comedy. Usually it is either The Big Bang Theory (no real surprise there); How I Met Your Mother; or Modern Family. We laugh together, and I feel relaxed and refreshed afterward.

One thing that I can no longer take, however, not even for two minutes are television dramas1. Even hearing a drama on in the background will force me to relocate, or fish out my noise-cancelling headset. Comedies release tension and allow me to relax; television dramas do the exact opposite. I was thinking about why this should be and I came up with a few possibilities:

  1. There is enough drama in real-life so that I don’t need it seeping into my relaxation time.
  2. I no longer find dramas entertaining. These days, it seems that almost all dramas have been forced to become serials, as opposed to series. Story lines last entire seasons and some are designed with multi-season story arcs built-in. Gone are the days of Magnum P.I. when you could be entertained by any single episode, without having to first watch the 50 that came before.
  3. In the effort to get the highest ratings, dramas up the melodrama to the point where it is just unbearable. Story lines seem to be based entirely on edge-cases these days, with no happy middle ground.

It’s too much for me. There is enough drama in life. Add to that the drama I experience in my reading, to say nothing of the drama I create in my writing, and I think I’m pretty much finished with television dramas for good. This trend of binge-watching seasons of dramas on NetFlix and other streaming services fills me with cold dread.

I recognize that I might be missing out, but I just can’t take the drama. As interesting as the Internet made Breaking Bad sound, I’ve never seen a single episode, and I’m almost certain I never will. On the flip side, the time that I would spend watching these dramas has been filled with other things; more time to hang out with the family, and time to write every day.

While I usually avoid making sweeping assumptions, it seems to me that I can’t be the only one who feels this way about this trend with dramas. Perhaps I am now in the wrong demographic, but it seems to me that the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I wonder if it ever will?

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  1. Which, for Puckish reasons, I’ve taken to pronouncing in such a way that its rhymes with “gramma.”

Doctor Who’s “Rose”

Last night (while in the grips of a battle with nausea) I finally got around to watching the first episode of the “new” Doctor Who series. The episode is called “Rose” and it is the episode that kicks things off for the rest of the series. It is only the second Doctor Who episode I’ve ever seen1

“Rose” was a pretty entertaining episode and I enjoyed watching it, but I did not think it was nearly as good as “Blink.” There was one thing about the series that struck me right away, and perhaps long time fans of the series can confirm by perspicacity on this (or tell me that I’m imagining things). Doctor Who is a “dramedy,” a kind of combination of a drama and a comedy. Not only that, the humor in Doctor Who is distinctly Wodehousian.  So many funny things are said with a completely straight face that I could not help but think that if P. G. Wodehouse wrote science fiction, this is what it would be like. This is to the show’s (and the show’s writers’) credit. I think this is a very difficult humor to pull off, but Doctor Who did it successfully in “Rose” and for me, that’s what made it a worthwhile episode to watch. I do not think this type of humor would have succeeded or worked if the show were done in America.

One thing I will say is that unlike some series, I did not feel compelled to immediately watch the next episode. But I think this works in the shows favor, too. As I’ve said before, I prefer “series” over “serials” and the first episode of Doctor Who felt like a series show to me. (I understand that there are multi-episode arcs, but I’m just talking about “Rose” for now.) In any case, I enjoyed the episode and will watch another one when a free time slot comes available in my schedule.

One last thing. I mentioned in the previous post that I was feeling pretty horrible last night and among the horrible things I was feeling was fever dreams. I don’t remember them clearly, but what I do recall of them were all Doctor Who-related.

  1. The first was “Blink” which I watched back in December after many people recommended it as a good introduction to the series.

A final goodbye to television?

The last regular network television show that I deliberately watched was the series finale of Smallville. With that, it seemed, my television watching ground to a halt. Indeed, it has been more than 10 months since I watched TV in anything other than a most trivial way.

While I have often complained about television shows today, this wasn’t one of those deliberate decisions like I have made in the past. Other activities have filled the time that television once occupied and what is currently offered on television simply can’t compete with those other activities. Even shows that I enjoyed watching (like The Big Bang Theory, and Dexter) I gave up. And you know the strange thing? I’ve had no regrets and no desire to return to them.

The other activities of which I speak are things like: hanging out with the family, reading and writing. Given a fixed amount of time in the day, the competition is fierce for what gets my attention. It is pretty clear to me that I enjoy these other things more than I enjoy television, but as someone who used to watch quite a bit of television, I’ve recently wondered if there were specific ways in which I’ve been turned off to television. After some consideration, I can think of several:

  1. It is too passive for me. You sit in front of the television and content is poured into you without your having to take any action. Even for relaxing, I prefer something a little more active, which is why I prefer reading, or writing or playing with the kids. When I truly want to relax, I’ll put on my noise-cancelling headset and play game after game of Solitaire on my iPad, just letting my mind wander.
  2. Television programming is no longer designed for a viewer just looking for 30- to 60- minutes of relaxation. Most dramas out there are no longer “series” but are instead “serials.” The difference: a series is a show that has a related set of characters and background, but in which each episode is self-contained. You can come to the show knowing nothing about it, watch the episode and go on your way. Serials require all of the back story from the first episode going forward. Think of it like this: you can jump into pretty much any episode of Magnum, P.I. or M*A*S*H and understand what is going on without having watched another episode. But try doing that for, say, Lost. I don’t want to have to understand all of the back story. I want a self-contained story that can be told in 30 or 60 minutes. House started out this way in its first season, but quickly diverted onto the serial track.
    Continue reading A final goodbye to television?

My first ever Doctor Who episode: “Blink!”

The back-story, for those who missed it:

A few weeks ago, I noticed a TARDIS parked across the street from my house and managed to capture a picture of it before it vanished. This got signal-boosted and I was bombarded by an incredulous Internet who couldn’t believe a science fiction writer had never seen a Doctor Who episode before. I tried to explain, mildly, that while I am indeed a science fiction writer, I grew up reading science fiction books and stories and never really got into the movies and TV shows. I’ve seen some, of course. I’ve even enjoyed some. But when I’m not writing, I’d rather spend my time reading science fiction than watching it. Still, the Internet is persistent and so I agreed to watch an episode of Doctor Who if the wise fans of the show could agree on a recommendation.

What was recommended was a show from Season 3 called “Blink” which I purchased from the iTunes store that very day, but which I didn’t have a chance to watch until yesterday. Well, dear Internet and Doctor Who fans, I’ve now watched the episode you recommended and I have a few comments to make on the experience, if you’ll indulge me.

Continue reading My first ever Doctor Who episode: “Blink!”

The Universe: Season 1

I finished watching Season 1 of the History Channel series The Universe a few days ago and I enjoyed it for the most part. The episodes were interesting and the computer graphics helped to illustrate concepts that might not otherwise be clear to a layperson. As a popular program on science, it does a good job. I think my favorite part of the show was seeing all of the scientists interviewed in each episode. I think there is a lot of value to hear about astronomy and physics and biology and chemistry from the people who actually do it and the scientists interviewed (some of them quite famous) seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

If I had one criticism of the show, it was that there was too much anthropomorphism in the writing. Galaxies were waging violent battles with one another. Black holes were swallowing matter as if they were living being with a consciousness. Ever present gravity always seemed to be “lurking” like some hidden beast, just out of sight. I understand the need for dramatics in a show on science, but it has been my experience that astronomy and astrophysics is exciting in its own right. It doesn’t need to be puffed up into something with humanlike characteristics. Toning down the writing in parts of the show might make it feel a bit more natural.

That said, the show is currently in its fifth season so it must be doing something right. At the time of this writing (last night) I am about to watch the first episode of the 18-episode second season.

And there is another positive side-effect of the show, from a science fiction writer’s perspective: from the first fourteen episodes, I got one solid story idea.

Yes, I will be watching HBOs Game Of Thrones

I’ve had a few people ask, knowing that I am not really a fan of fantasy, but also knowing that I think HBO does good series. My DVR is programmed to record the Game of Thrones (which I keep wanting to read as Crown of Thorns for some reason), but I cannot yet say whether I’ll watch it in realtime or not, especially since I start my new scheduled tomorrow. More than likely I will watch tonight’s episode when it airs, and watch the rest on DVR. I never read the books (although I met Martin once, briefly, when he was signing books at the now-extinct Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, CA) so I will have to be careful to avoid spoilers.

You hear that people? NO SPOILERS!

ETA: Of course, the Yankees are the ESPN Sunday night game tonight at 8pm EDT so anything goes, I suppose.

I have discovered the Universe

I’m talking, of course, about the History Channel series that apparently started in 2007. I bought the first season and watched the first episode, about the Sun last night before bed and it was fantastic. I enjoyed it so much that I was a little sad that there were only 14 episodes. But then I discovered that there are 5 seasons and somewhere between 60-70 episodes. This makes me very happy and you can bet I will have more to say on the program once I’ve seen more of it.


Television’s death knell (for me)

Life is gradually squeezing television out of the picture and as Smallville raps up its final season, I may no longer have a reason, patience, or time to watch TV. Yes, I know that I’ve said this before. But there are some differences between then and now:

  1. I was single then. I have a family now.
  2. I had proactively decided to quit TV then. Circumstances have made TV mostly obsolete now.
  3. There simply isn’t time in the day.

There are TV shows that I enjoy, Smallville being among them. I also like The Big Bang Theory, Blue Bloods, and most of the HBO series like Boardwalk Empire, and Big Love. My DVR faithfully records these shows for me. But what I have found over the last several weeks is that I have had no desire to head downstairs to watch one of these recorded shows. Every time it occurs to me to do so, I think: do I really want to spent 40 minutes watching TV, or use that time to play with my little boy; or if he’s already asleep: read more from the current Astounding. Or write. Or take care of things around the house. This is saying a lot, especially since I still haven’t watched the newest episode of Smallville, and it’s been a week. I’m 2 weeks behind on Big Love and I’ve lost count on all the other shows that are recorded.

Some of it is schedule: where would I fit this into my day?

Another problem is that the Little Man like to watch his shows, stuff from the Disney Channel like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse; or stuff from Nick like Sponge Bob. Or he’ll watch Cars DVDs. Or Elmo. The sounds from all of these shows, heard repeatedly, is like some kind of Chinese water torture. It makes me seek out quiet, and look forward to the moment when the TV can be turned off.

I don’t know if this trend away from television will continue–it certainly didn’t last time around. But like I said, the circumstances are different this time. I really do want to see the final episodes of Smallville. The other shows I care about a lot less. Given the choice of activities on any given day, television has pretty much fallen off the radar.

A world without television

I have this romanticized notion of what the world might be like without television.  Part of this comes my reading of the Golden Age of science fiction, which is generally agreed to have taken place from 1939-1949 or so.  Part of it comes from when my Grandpa used to talk about what it was like growing up in New York City without television.  When I was younger, of course, I couldn’t dream of such a thing.  Now, the more television I watch, the more I try to imagine how the world would be different without it.

Let me be clear:  this is not meant as a diatribe against television, nor is it to say that all television is crap.  Theodore Sturgeon said 90% of science fiction is crud.  I think Sturgeon’s Law applies to any medium, including television.  But there is the other 10% that is worthwhile, and without the crud, we likely wouldn’t have the gems.  It is for these gems that I have a difficult time giving up on television entirely–something that I would really like to do.  I’ve never been a visually inclined person, nor a willingly passive receptacle.  Reading a book generally gives me much more enjoyment than watching television, or going to see a motion picture.  Nevertheless, there are television shows I’ve watched that have had a strong impact on me: M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing to name a few.

Even so, more and more I find myself imagining how the world would be different without television.  Intuitively, I feel like it would be a better place, but I can’t really support this.  My imagination fails at the task.  I once tried to write a story about it and couldn’t do it.  I finally decided it was because given our technological developments and our natural progression, television is inevitable.  Still, I am envious–even jealous–of those people who lived in a world without television.

In such a world, the things I loved thrived.  Science fiction boomed during the 1940s and even into the 1950s when television was a new an unproven medium.  A youngster’s raw material came from books and magazines, and often these were science fiction books and magazines, or their first cousins, comic books.  Coming home from work, one didn’t have to wonder if there was anything to watch.  There was no anxiety over the next episode of American Idol, or the final season of LOST.  Of course, there was radio, but that was almost as participatory as reading.  With the rise of television in the 1950s came a decline in reading, in particular the short fiction markets.  Television was easier entertainment.  For one thing, you didn’t even have to know how to read!

Today, there is so much television and it is so tightly bound to our daily lives, that we have to play catch-up.  The DVR has replaced and improved upon the VCR.  We can now watch shows at our leisure.  We probably record much more than we used to, and many of us have backlogs of show to watch, to fill those nights of reruns.  I can remember the days before the Internet.  The Internet really took off in 1994 and it has changed our lives in a clear and dramatic way.  I sometimes long for those days before I found myself constantly checking email; and then blogs; and then Facebook and Twitter.  But I was never part of the generation before television.

Television seems to add a level of stress and anxiety that was absent in the pre-television days.  That’s not to say that stress and anxiety did not exist in the days after the stock market crash of 1929 or the dark days before World War II.  But television added a new kind of stress: to be in the know, you have to keep up with the programming.  There are social pressures that were absent in the days before television.  Perhaps some of those pressures existed in radio days, but the stations and programming are limited.  Today, I have access to something like 700 channels.  Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.

If television didn’t exist, I feel like I might get more done.  I might spend more time with the family, engaged in activities that don’t involve staring passively at a screen.  I might read or write more.  I know there are people out there who eschew television completely, but their will power exceeds mine.  And besides, there are some things that I like about it.  But there are also things I really hate about it.

Television has evolved into a medium whose sole purpose is to sell products.  Advertising has taken over.  Even television news is merely a vehicle for selling products to the kind of people who would buy them.  As a mass media, it takes the path of least resistance and expense, which means it tends to dumb down its programming to the lowest common denominator.  Newspaper articles tend to do this, too, these days. But like television, newspapers are using copy to sell products.  Books, I think, are different.

Most books don’t contain blatant advertising.  Oh, sure, I own Ace paperbacks from the 1970s with cigarette ads stuck in the center.  But those are the exceptions.  Books tend not to have as wide an audience as television, but they are not "broadcast", they are, more often than not, "narrowcast".  We call this narrowcasting, "genre".  Because books don’t attempt to reach the widest possible audiences, they don’t have to be dumbed down.  Because the content is paid for by the readers, not advertisers, there is no undue influence of advertising (at least that I can see).  There is no noise and light pollution that comes from watching television.  (Ah, what would it be like to look out the window and not see scores of windows glowing in electric-blue light?)  I can’t sit in a room with a television running and read a book.  My attention and ability to multitask in such an environment is limited.  But I can sit in a room with others, when all are quietly reading.

Maybe the world would be better without television.  We have farmed off a lot of our information to television.  Would we be better informed citizens if television did not exist?  Certainly newspapers, or the Internet equivalents would have to be of better quality than they are now (and perhaps they wouldn’t be dying off).  Would we be a more literate society?  Would we be able to engage in public debate in a more meaningful way if every time we had something to say, we didn’t have to fuse our position down to soundbites made ubiquitous by television?Would we have better control of our spending if we weren’t bombarded by 20 minutes worth of unnecessary products for every hour of television we watched?  I can recall even as a youngster watching Saturday morning cartoons, saying to my parents, "I want that!  I want that!" to every toy I saw advertised.  ("I want, I want, I want!" I can hear my folks’ voice echoing in return even now.)

There is an argument to be made for television pushing boundaries–race, sex, sexual orientation–to a wide audience that might not otherwise be reached by books.  (Think "after-school" specials.)  These arguments are certainly not to be denied.  All in the Family led the pack in this respect.

Perhaps it is simply that television is too big.  In most instances, I’m left feeling empty in a way that does not occur when I read a book, even a bad one.  For one thing, with books, in most cases, it is still possible to engage the author.  Write an author a letter (or send them an email) telling them how you enjoyed their book, or how you disagree with something, and chances are you’ll get a response from the author.  That is not true of television.  Often times we don’t know who the writers are, simply because writers of television programs are not highlighted in the way a writer of a book is.  Then, too, because it is a mass-medium, the actors, directors, and producers get so much mail they probably have no ability to respond in a meaningful way.  I don’t know about other genres, but I know that within the world of written science fiction, there seems to be an open dialog between most readers and writers.  There are conventions that serve this very purpose.

I realize that I am in the minority on this.  I realize that what I am doing is nothing more than casting back a nostalgic eye, seeing greener pastures behind me.  Television is here to stay and is constantly evolving.  Most of what comes out of it is crap, but there will always be gems among the junk.  But I can’t help looking back and wondering: are we really better off?  And more than anything else, wondering what it would be like living in 2010 with all our modern conveniences–except television.  It’s not a fair game, I realize that.  But I dream of it nonetheless.