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Rob got a Netflix subscription for Christmas from Edie, and Dee received an iPod touch from Santa which quickly led to the discovery of free cartoons and movies on YouTube. Between the two of them,  passive viewing time has been increasing exponentially since. The Arctic blast last week helped not one bit, and I am afraid television viewing has claimed a solid footing on the household’s beachhead once again.

It’s not that the viewing of anything is intrinsically evil. We are primarily audio/visual creatures. It’s the preferred method for taking in new information. The trouble stems from the dearth of decent material that passes for tv and movies. With so much content available, you’d think that the bulk would err on the side of quality, but that’s simply not the case.

So what’s playing at our house?

Tom and Jerry. Vintage Smurfs and episodes of She-Ra.

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At first Dee was a bit annoyed to find that some of the videos were home-made splice jobs or of questionable visual quality. She thought YouTube was a television. After I explained it, she quickly figured out how to search and choose watchable offerings. It’s a bit funny really because as a little girl, she couldn’t barely work a television remote. I kept her deliberately ignorant of dvd players before we moved up to Alberta. While so many parents were proud of their children’s technology skills, I wasn’t in any hurry for Dee to be able to work something on her own. I lost too much in parental controls that way. So it’s amazing to watch her “work it” now.

Netflix has laid bare the world of Trailer Park Boys.  Rob actively shunned the show when it originally aired on Showcase back in the early part of the last decade. We are both too familiar with that social strata to find it humorous, but on a whim, he gave it a peek and now three seasons later, he is hooked.

Admittedly, it’s a dead on parody of some of the more perplexing aspects of that world and it nails the stereotype. The show also ramps it up just enough to allow a viewer to laugh without feeling guilty about it. I haven’t watched more than a handful of episodes all the way through, but I don’t have to because Rob details each one as vividly as Dee regaled me with an accounting of the Smurfs (“I have no idea where Baby Smurf came from. They just don’t have any moms there.”)

I do have one favorite episode though:

Reminded me a bit of Soap.

Before he left for work this morning, Rob mentioned that he checked our internet usage for the month. At Christmas we went over our allotment and got throttled by the provider for a week until we could upgrade our package. Between downloading books, Netflix and loading the new iPod, we’d “over-spent”.

“We’re at nearly 50% of our monthly allotment which is twice what we were using before but not close to using up what we are allowed.”

I will choose to view this as a half-full and call it a win.

Home Improvement (TV series)

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Because we don’t experience enough reno, Rob and I spent some evening sofa time (a sofa being something else we don’t experience these days) watching television, specifically home buying/selling and renovating shows on HGTV. There were shows about reno disasters put right. Lemon homes made right. Virgin home buyers. Jaded home buyers. Greedy, whiny home buyers and sellers. Decorating. Deck pimping. A smorgasbord of wood, plaster and tool-belts with nary an ass crack in sight.

One of Rob’s favorites is Mike Holmes, who is a contractor out east somewhere who’s built a home improvement empire. His show, Holmes Inspection, solicits home owners with issues that need correcting and these issues? Nightmarish and potentially hazardous to the unsuspecting who’ve entreated his guidance. If nothing else, this show should make even the most savvy home owner/buyer suspicious to her marrow of contractors and realtors. One poor couple called Holmes with a sewer back up problem in the basement that turned out to be termites that had eaten away the entire foundation of the side of their just purchased home. AND there was asbestos. Shudder.

Another program is all about the building of one’s dream deck because – apparently – we all lust for THE deck of decks and a London park manicured back yard in the bargain.

My favorites are the home buying shows. There is Love It or List It, which pits a renovator against a realtor. One tries to upgrade the existing home to coerce the owners to stay put while the other shows them listings in an attempt to get them to list and move away. Another show trots increasingly larger homes in front of couples looking to buy a new home, shining a white-hot spotlight on the true cause of the current housing debacle in the U.S. – greed. I watched dumbfounded as a couple argued that a 2000 sq foot home was not large enough for them and their toddler daughters. They eventually opted for a nearly 3000 sq foot home that they could barely afford and had no extra money to furnish or pony up for a lawn.

It’s all about the square footage. Two people – often – living in caverns. And everyone wants the largest master bedroom they can find. But to my mind, unless your sex life includes gymnastics and Tantric yoga, the space is wasted. Do people hold dinner parties in their bedrooms? No, they sleep. They don’t even have sex off the bed, which renders the master baths with separate showers and swimming pool like tubs a waste as well.

We are entering month six of the kitchen/living room reno. Rob simply doesn’t have time enough to progress any faster than he has, and between work, family and a winter of the child bringing home every disease under the sky, progress at times has been snail-like in movement.

“You know,” Rob said as we were watching the Deck Pimp, “maybe we could write in and get him to come and build us a deck.”

But if we are going whore our lives out (more than I do blogging anyway), I think we should think bigger and send a plea to Mr.Holmes.

I know what you are thinking though. They spent their holiday watching television?

We got to the Villa late Sunday because Dee came home from school the Friday before with a raging fever. It’s still going around up here and you luck out with a 24hr virus or one that lingers for a week. She was right as rain by Sunday morning, but the late start and the cold weather kept us indoors mostly Sunday evening and Monday. Rob brought his computer along because he had to check his work e-mail. No, really. He had to and I can’t say much more. And though I brought my netbook, I can’t say I really cared if I logged on or not. In fact, I was off-line until about Thursday and even then, I had no enthusiasm, barely checking the blogs.

So, it was television. And tv is awful. How do you people stand it? Reality and terrible drama and sometimes both at once.

There is a channel that’s devoted to hooking up, staying hooked, hooking. One centered on a matchmaker in NYC who actually schools ordinary folk in the art of landing millionaires. It’s like some awful Marilyn Monroe movie on Botox and pretension.

Anymore I am as bad as Dee, staring at flat screens as though I have never in my life seen one or didn’t spend most of my childhood glued to the tube.

But we always came back to the home based reality shows. I don’t know what that says about us. Boring things, no doubt. A sofa, a snuggle and a roaring fire is more holiday for us than you know and a little television a couple of times a year is less a brain rot than most people inflict on themselves.

Erica Kane

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ABC announced today that it was canceling two of its remaining three soap operas. All My Children and One Life to Live, shows that have been on the air since 1970 and 1968 respectively will wrap up in early fall of 2011 or in the new year of 2012. Perhaps the Mayans were right after all and the world as we know it is slowly winding to an end.

At one time or another, I have watched every soap opera ever filmed during the course of my life. Just ask me about one. I can probably remember something about it. And I place the blame squarely on my mother. She watched soap operas while she folded or ironed laundry in the afternoon when we were supposed to be napping. I qualify because I was a non-napping child. Something, to my chagrin, I passed on genetically to Dee, but by the time she came along, I was no longer a regular viewer of any soap opera though I doubt she would have been interested. She is only just beginning to prefer live action in equal portions to her animated fare.

The first soaps I ever watched have already been canceled. The Guiding Light and As The World Turns ceased to be last year. But they are hardly the only ghosts of soap operas past that I watched. My first brush with cancellation was Dark Shadows. It was also the first soap I watched because I wanted to as opposed to simply picking up my mom’s viewing habits. I was five and I would sneak across the street to the neighbors to see it. My parents thoroughly disapproved because it gave me nightmares. I would scream the house down regularly and woe to anyone who tried to wake me. I was a bruiser to the point that I had to warn my first college roommates not to try to touch me if I woke them with my dreaming.

Do you remember The Edge of Night? Sky and Raven? Geraldine Whitney? Just thirty minutes right after General Hospital and long since gone.

Loving? Watched it. Renewed my crush on Randolph Mantooth. Or Santa Barbara? Some of the best dialogue ever.

I peeked in on Another World here and there. That was the Frame family, I believe but I don’t remember the name of the town.

As The World Turns was Oakdale and The Guiding Light was in Springfield.

Ryan’s Hope starred Kate Mulgrew, so I watched it for her because she came from my hometown in Dubuque and I went to school with her bratty youngest sister, Jenny.

Pine Valley was a place I never cared much about though until everyone was watching it in college and I couldn’t avoid it any longer. It was the Greg and Jenny era. Tad was bedding Liza Colby‘s mother, and Opal wasn’t even a twinkle in Palmer’s eye because of his weird and creepy obsession with his daughter, Nina. Erica Kane was herself always but it was long before the skin-crawly molestation thing revealed she’d had a baby at 14 who grew up to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

One Life to Live was a guilty fallback. I watched it with a far amount of regularity for about 25 years. A time period that spans most of high school, all of college and a good chunk of my single adulthood. Asa is dead now. For real. They didn’t recast him when the actor who played him died a few years ago. Everyone else is old and the one thing I love about soap opera is how many of the female characters are allowed to age like real women do. Sure, a few are scary thin and obviously botoxed and tucked, but waists thicken and age drapes over them like actual skin.

I guess it’s sad that soaps are on the verge of extinction. The genre goes back to the days of radio and the continuous story evolution allowed viewers to watch characters grow up and cope with life – albeit in a melodramatic fashion – in a way that felt familiar to the way real families grew and moved through time.

ABC is replacing the shows with reality crap. One of the new shows will be a cooking/weight loss themed horror that follows women as they struggle to get thin because that’s what women need – more poor body image propaganda for entertainment purposes. The other show is one of those annoyingly condescending fashion make-overs where highly irritating people criticize normal folk’s wardrobes and dress them up for realities they don’t actually live in.

Not that it matters. We don’t have a television that accesses the world of network or cable tv anymore. But, it’s a shame when a performing art form passes away in preference of soul-killing garbage designed to sell audiences questionable values and crappy products.

R.I.P. Todd Manning. There’ll be no more resurrection days for you.

Right before Christmas, back in the days when Americans didn’t believe that the holiday could be cleansed of its religious roots, the week or so leading up to the big day was awash in thematic fare. Every drama and sitcom acknowledged Christmas in a very special episode and variety shows had glittery specials.

And there were movies. Lots of old movies. Jimmy Stewart and Alistair Sims.

When I was in kindergarten, Jonny Whitaker of the sitcom Family Affair, was the little “it” boy as far as movies and specials went. He did Disney and he starred in an adaptation of a children’s Christmas book called The Littlest Angel.

It was horrific really when I recall it. A little shepherd boy named Michael falls to his death chasing a butterfly along a steep mountain path. His parents have no idea he is dead when he travels back from heaven to retrieve a box of treasures to give to the newborn baby Jesus though his mother “feels” him hug her and clutches her heart in fear.

The point of the story was that even the smallest of us can be important in the grand scheme and that God loves all of us regardless, but I remember even today watching that little boy fall and knowing that his parents would be heartbroken when they discovered what had happened.

Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise me that so much of what Rob and I watch with Dee is littered with dead parents and dead or dying children. That is the stuff that makes our tummies tighten and is an easy dramatic reach for most writers. Why mess with success.

On a whim, I searched for a clip from the original show and, of course, I found it. When I was five and six and seven, I really liked this movie. I watched it every year along with Rudolph and Charlie Brown and J.T. and that scraggly cat. I wonder at myself these days because I can’t believe I associated such sadness with the joy of Christmas in a positive way.

After a punishing massage, I indulged in a roam through Staples and a sit down at the Starbucks in the nearby grocery. I needed a notepad for rewrites of my current novel and a change of scenery. 

Since mid-winter I have been avoiding going into town unless I had no other choice. It gets tiring, the in and out of the truck, trudging through snow, shielding from the prairie wind, and tip-toeing over ice, but now that spring is stubbornly muscling her dainty self onto the scene like Tinkerbell on steroids, the cooped up feeling is pushing me out of the house.

As usual, I lost track of the time and had to hot-foot it home to get lunch for Rob. He comes home most days, but today as I was finishing the food prep, he called to say he wouldn’t be able to make it because a meeting was scheduled unexpectedly and he wouldn’t have time. Disappointing, but it happens. 

So there I was with lunch and no table-mate and no real urge to gobble in front of the computer screen. Surfing is provoking a “meh” feeling lately.

Mad  wrote a Buffy the V post recently that has run around in my mind ever since and it occurred to me that perhaps I could watch a bit of Buffy with my lunch and peruse the episode guide. Yeah, I am a geek like that.

And that is what I did. I pulled out my favorite season – six – and put in a disc then settled back with my soup for about a half hour of paranormal deliciousness.

Season six is my favorite. It’s dark, angsty and full of character evolution. It is everything that good story-telling is, including being experimental. The episode, Once More with Feeling, is actually a musical and I love me some bursting into song on a moment’s notice. I wouldn’t mind at all if real life was like that.

There was a time when I strongly identified with this collection of work. I still admire the craft that went into the creation and it was interesting to connect with it again.

I know I have mentioned before that I like my historical fiction – regardless of the medium – to be fairly accurate. It’s more than having been a former teacher and believing that there are things to be learned from the interpretation of history. I don’t believe that blatant inaccuracies make something more interesting or “artistic”. Instead it simply presumes the ignorance of the audience and inserts pointless fiction where it would have been just as easy – and interesting – to relay fact. Inaccuracy is just laziness on the part of a writer or filmmaker. If one cannot make real history live and breathe, then one is either not as gifted as one thinks one is, or the subject matter isn’t worthy of retelling. Often the latter is the case.

Not so the Tudor Dynasty of England. The real history is fascinating enough that most people have a vague idea or better of who Henry the VIII was at least, but if you have watched any of the Showtime series based on his life, you have been treated to an historical misrepresentation that would make former Vice-President Cheney proud.

Knowing English history, as I do, every re-interpretation of fact and character jars me out of my suspension of disbelief, and this shouldn’t happen with good story-telling. The reality being built should never stray so far that the audience consciously realizes it.

Granted, many people don’t know much about history and I guess that is the sadder fact. Most of the folks who watch this series haven’t a clue that much of what they are seeing is basically an excuse to legitimize soft-porn by calling it “historical”.

Four episodes in and I have decided to amuse myself by ferreting out the examples of  the Hollywoodization of Henry and enjoying the discussion that Rob and I have during the cheesy moments and afterward – aided by Wikipedia searches to verify our arguments.

And yes, that is a very geeky thing to do. But we roll like that.

I picked up the dvd of the first season of the Showtime hit, Weeds, with the every intention of watching it –  over two years ago. I think it was a day after Thanksgiving special at Target. I had a habit of snatching up dvd’s on sale back then and never even breaking the shrink wrap on them. Television and movies were never my escapes. I think the only time I used a tv show as a diversion it really wasn’t a diversion as much as a way to immerse myself in my own feelings being experiencing them through the characters. Distance and yet not so much at all. 

Rob pulled Weeds off the shelf recently, and we have been watching it a couple of episodes at a time. Each one is about 30 minutes which makes it perfect for nights we don’t want to invest in a feature length film, but still need to unwind a bit before sleep*.

The main character is a widowed pot dealer. Hence the title “weeds” as in illicit smokes and mourning attire. My first thought was,

“Damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

I was a public school teacher working with at-risk teenagers at the time of Will’s death. Those that weren’t active pot-heads were simply waiting for the ankle bracelets to come off so they could get back to it.

I had several students who came to the afternoon classes so stoned they could barely see. One boy was a freaking genius and his bloodshot glazed vision and slow-motion two finger typing did not keep him from completing the computer modules in a startling progression and eventually returning to regular course work with the “normal” children. But there was another young man who could barely speak English when he was under the influence, and it was his native tongue**. I finally had to sit him down – one day when he actually showed up straight – and inform him that there was no way he could possibly salvage the year unless he stopped coming to class stoned.

To his credit, he didn’t bother to deny his usage, but he wondered why he was failing when DeeJ could be just as high and be getting A’s and B’s.

It was then I had to point out the cold truth.

“Some people can go through school so stoned you wonder how they stand upright because they are just really, really smart. You are not one of those people.”

He didn’t comment but went back to work. Bless his little heart, he tried to do school without the enhancements, but he eventually was expelled for bringing drugs to school and “sharing” them.

Between the inhalers and the gang members I knew, I could have established quite the side business. I wouldn’t have been the first teacher to work two jobs during the school day. I knew people who ran construction businesses and managed rental properties in between (sometimes during once we got phones and Internet in our rooms) classes. One guy, a drama teacher, was so constantly on the phone with his bookie that some of his students who’d had me the year before would show up in my room after school to ask for help with homework he’d assigned them at the beginning of class without any instruction at all beyond,

“Just read the directions.”

He’s  a principal now. 

The Widow Nancy, who eventually will achieve drug lord status, is surrounded by a cast of interesting characters including her loser brother-in-law, Andy and her two sons – one of whom will eventually go into the “family” business.

Her friends are various degrees of off-center or just fuck’d-up. I especially love Doug, her accountant, played by Kevin Nealon and her dealer, a black woman in the “city” who is hilarious in her assessments of Nancy’s suburban white girl deficiencies as she struggles to adjust to her new reality. But the show’s themes are adult, so expect nudity, sex  – a whole lot of drug use – and really bad language.

The show doesn’t really go into how Nancy ended up dealing or how long exactly she’s been widowed. It does deal with her grief, and her kids’, but in a way that is actually quite real for a show with such an outlandish basis. She grieves in between. When she has time or when the moments hit – though sometimes you can see moments come up and her consciously pushing them away or aside for a while.

The comedy is dark. It can be uncomfortable and more so when you find yourself laughing at it.

There are only ten episodes in the first season. I wasn’t sure we would continue onto the next one, but Rob went ahead and ordered seasons two and three from Amazon the other day.***

It’s mindless, politically incorrect and probably soul-warping.  Forewarned is forearmed.


*Yeah, I know what you are thinking. Why aren’t they having sex? Seriously people, you live in the gutter. And who says we aren’t as well? Hmm.

** I taught plenty of non-English speaking stoners too, he just wasn’t one of them.

*** Considering how sporadically we’ve watched season one – took us nearly a month – it was actually cheaper to buy the discs outright than rent them from the local supplier of cheap audio/visual entertainment.