Wednesday, July 23, 2008

GH: Night Shift was really pretty good?

Astounding soap fans worldwide, last night's season premiere of General Hospital: Night Shift on Soapnet was, well, it was, it was . . . good. Now, while the first season of Night Shift drew decent numbers for Soapnet (note, however, that these numbers were especially high for the first ep and not as much thereafter), all the soap fans and bloggers I've encountered online pretty much agree that it stunk. Bad in so many ways, more than I choose to recount here. For me, the greatest testament to its stinkiness was the fact that I did not watch all of it. Me, the most obsessively completist TV viewer I know, and a 25+ year GH fan to boot, simply could not handle watching all of that godawful show.

So promises of Jagger and Robert aside, I approached the new season quite warily. Now, it had plenty of faults, like some super-cheese acting, some excessively obvious Grey's Anatomy aping, and some wackadoodles character shifts. But, on the whole, it was . . . good. What was good about it?
1) It was funny. Yes, I said funny.
2) It returned Antonio Sabato, Jr. to my screen. And in a towel, no less. And his enunciation has much improved since his first GH stint 13 or so years ago. And he's still totally charming. And his connection to Robin was so meaningful to anyone in the know.
3) Robin and Patrick were truly at the center of the story. And they were as adorable and full of chemistry and interesting as they always are (in their too-too brief appearances on GH proper).
4) It made sense, told its story well (and coherently--big ups for that!--ahem, season 1), was entertaining, drew effectively on GH character history. The good parts made me remember why I like soaps, and especially why I like (or, rather, used to like) GH so much.

Not so good was the recast Dr. Leo Julian's personality transplant. The old Dr. Leo was a laid back dude, bopping around the hospital with his earbuds in place, rock t-shirts upon his chest. New Leo is a big grumpy grouch, beating up on the interns.

Although the George and Izzie reboot intern characters were a bit too much copycat to take, I give the NS folks props for having the guts to make the "George" (Kyle, right?) actually gay. And even in its train wreck first season, NS was much better than GH at racial and ethnic diversity. That seems not as explicit a purpose this time around, although characters of color do have much more to do here than on the mothership. (I was even happy that the holistic medicine doc--sorry, names fail me now and too lazy to look anything up--who seems to be ethnically "other," albeit vaguely so at this point--is Robin's old med school pal. This is what today's GH is missing--one of many things, of course--multiply linked connections for each character on the canvas.)

The faults of GH proper (and surprising goodness of NS) are all the more clear to me in my first couple of weeks of OLTL viewing. I really don't have time for this, but I decided to see what all the OLTL fuss was about. And I think I kind of get it. First, funny! Campy, at times, but all in good fun. And so, so many links between characters and stories, much more so than on GH, where characters with no links to anyone appear and stay in their little story bubbles. Plus, I realized something totally missing in the GH male characters of late--no goofiness! OLTL's young stud, Rex (not to mention the hilarious David Vickers) is traditional soap hunk-looking, but full of goofy charm. He reminds me of GH's Frisco Jones in the '80s. GH's Spinelli is all goof and little else, and is not allowed to be a hunky, romantic lead (Bradford Anderson could do it if given the chance).

Just my rambling thoughts. Couldn't let the fact that NS was actually . . . good pass without remark.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

DVR drama

Here's a problem for you: one nearly-full DVR leased from a certain satellite company, with an on-the-blink remote reception thingy. A DVR with only like 6% available space that cannot be operated with a remote control. Which means no fast-forwarding. Of commercials. No searching for titles to record. Playback is OK, operable from the receiver itself, but no pausing while playing, and NO FAST-FORWARDING OF COMMERCIALS.

Not a big problem for the boy's shows, as they are commercial-free anyway. Bigger problem for mine. I've started recording everything on the other DVR in the house, so I'm covered there. But said satellite company, finally recognizing that the problem is not with the remote but rather with the receiver/DVR is sending a new one. Current one--remember 94% full hard drive--needs to be returned to company upon receipt of new one. So what to do?

I have a LOT of hours of TV to watch and no ability to fast-forward while watching. Do I go on a watching binge, filling up commercial time with bits of work, reading, house cleaning? Or do I let go some of the backlog of shows? As a TV completist, it kills me not to see all of something that I decide to watch. I admit it will be some relief to start fresh with an empty DVR, but the mountain of shows before me (WITH commercials) makes the new DVR seem as much of a burden as an opportunity.

This is one of those moments when real life and research life oddly coincide. Early this week I spent time researching the history of Nielsen's measurement of time-shifting--the problematic inclusion of VCR recording, but not playback, in the live program ratings as well as the current C3 compromise of average commercial minute ratings based on live viewing plus 3 days' DVR playback. Because I was researching this in the context of the recent history of the soaps, I had to think about the ways in which time-shifting figures into soap viewing and also about the ways that keeping these shows viable is so dependent upon those time-shifters playing rather than fast-forwarding commercials (so that the viewing counts in the C3 ratings system--all of this only being relevant for Nielsen households, of course). Now, if I had the good fortune to be a Nielsen household (a lifelong dream, I typically tell my students) I would play, play, play those commercials on all of my shows. But, alas, Nielsen has not come knocking and thus I can imagine little more painful than sitting through the many commercial minutes of a daytime soap. I know that many viewers do, but I just don't get that. My time-shifting habits are too deeply engrained.

Damn it, I've been watching the first episode of Soapnet's Canadian import, the hockey soap MVP, as I write this (during commercials) and I like it. Means I have 3 more backlogged eps to catch up on, with commercials, before the DVR switch. Such is the burden of television.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Several requests later, I am finally blogging about Swingtown, CBS's summer drama about sex and the '70s. As I've written a book on American television and sex in the '70s, some friends seem to think I must have lots to say about the show. I kind of don't, but I do like the show and so thought I'd say a bit about it here.

I'm a sucker for all things '70s, so I'm surely an easy target, but I've enjoyed the show from the get-go. The pilot laid on the cutesy nostalgia a bit thick--pilots, bah!--but since the series has been a bit more subtle in its efforts to evoke a different time and the possibilities it contained. The show is a bit too much in love with what it sees as the sexual freedom and openness of the '70s. My own sense is that this spirit of liberation was certainly there, but not nearly as widespread as the series makes it out to be, nor as good for men and women alike as it makes it out to be.

That said, the last episode aired, "Go Your Own Way," began to nuance the show's portrait of the times in ways I found interesting. Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," playing over the final moments was NOT one such nuance. No, it pretty much smacked you over the head with its announcement of Susan's growing awareness of herself as an autonomous being. But who doesn't like that song? So even though it was way unsubtle as the closure to the episode, I enjoyed it anyway (kind of my story about the series as a whole--not all that impressive, but I enjoy it anyway).

My favorite part about this episode was that Trina and Sylvia were throwing a benefit party for Harry Reems, the Deep Throat actor that was threatened with legal reprisals for his participation in the film. Harry was portrayed as a nice guy, a bit geeky even (or maybe that's just my 2008 interpretation of the mustache), who found himself in a circumstance much bigger than he had ever imagined. While I somehow doubt that Reems was as innocent a figure as he seemed here, I loved that the porn actor seemed one of the least sexually threatening men on screen.

The episode was most centered on Molly Parker's Susan. (upper left corner; I love Parker and am eager to see her other work. She's an amazingly likable actor.) She defies her husband, Bruce, in attending the Reems benefit, and is thrilled not so much by the porny titillation but by her newfound sense of social justice in participating in this anti-censorship action, as well as by her circulation in the public sphere without a man at her side. Susan's teenage daughter, Laurie (bottom row, center; with period-perfect Laurie Partridge hair) is an extremely self-possessed young woman, and she cheers on her mother's efforts at independence. I'm totally rooting for those two.

I think I liked this episode most of all so far for several reasons: 1) it showed some glimmers of awareness of women's liberation alongside the gender-neutral sexual liberation that most other episodes have considered. I'm hoping this means this will be a continuing arc. 2) It referenced the media world of the '70s--porn film, not the PG-rated "porn" of TV--but '70s media nonetheless. And 3) it really began to pay off my viewing investment. This deserves a bit more explication, so here goes.

One of the things I love about series television is the way it can pay off your viewing investment. You give it enough time, enough attention, you open yourself to it, and you can get big rewards. What are these rewards? Seeing characters you've come to "know" act in expected--and unexpected--ways. Having knowledge you've acquired about characters inform something those characters do, and thus allowing you to see multiple levels of meaning in their actions or words. And the way that, when done well, you don't really have to work all that hard for those meanings, those levels, they are laid out for you in aesthetically pleasing but relatively straightforward ways. Anyone can "get" it, anyone, that is, who has put in the time and the attention, something not everyone is willing to do for their TV. That TV rewards time and attention, commitment and patience, is one of the things I love about it. And it's a reward I felt I got in Swingtown's "Go Your Own Way."

Monday, July 7, 2008

From the video catalog . . .

I described my homemade video catalog and collection in an earlier post. A must-share from today's dubbing, the short-lived 1981 series The Brady Brides, one of the first programs recorded and perhaps even the first archived from my family's first VCR. The good folks at YouTube are of course already on top of it, as this snippet of the credit sequence shows. But MY copies come from the original 1981 NBC broadcasts, not some recent-years Family Channel repeat, so there!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From the land of soap research

Just read Barbara J. Irwin's 1990 dissertation, "An Oral History of a Piece of Americana: The Soap Opera Experience,” which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't seen before. It's a valuable document, full of material from her interviews with many soap industry folks, including now late greats like Bill Bell and Doug Marland. But I wanted to share a couple of quotes, and contrast them with something more recent, from network daytime execs:

From Judy Jenkins, Director of CBS Daytime:
"Our job is to allow art to happen. To protect and nurture and allow art to happen . . . " (p. 177)

From Jackie Smith, head of NBC daytime, and former VP of ABC Daytime:
"My job is not to think of it too much as a business. I have millions of people around me reminding me of the money and the ratings. My business is to think of it as creative. I'm being paid not to think so much about the other things. To be aware of them, but to really think about creating a novel and helping those people that are working, writing, and producing these shows to be more creative than they might be on their own . . ." (175-76)

Contrast these with this from Brian Frons, currently head of Disney-ABC Daytime, from a 3/31/08 Broadcasting & Cable article:

“I want to look at our business as a studio business,” says Disney-ABC Daytime President Brian Frons, who oversees the daytime shows, Soapnet and the Buena Vista studio. The division produces some 1,000 hours of original programming per year, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Ebert & Roeper.

“Our job is to get as many people watching us as possible—daytime, Soapnet, international. It's a more holistic revenue-driven model and gives people the confidence to know we're sticking around. Advertisers do like having this platform to reach women on an efficient basis, so they need to know that.”

I know, I know, different contexts --Frons was speaking to an industry trade paper while Jenkins and Smith were speaking to an academic--but I found the differences in perspective quite striking nonetheless. Is it possible that the network execs responsible for daytime have abandoned all investment in creativity, art, storytelling in exchange for a a focus on "holistic revenue-driven models"? How much might conglomeration have to do with this (e.g. Frons is now a Disney exec managing a number of brands rather than a network employee responsible for a daypart)?

Even more sad? Irwin's interview with then and now Days of Our Lives executive producer Ken Corday about the future of daytime -- again, from 1990, folks:

"There is a law of diminishing returns here, and the handwriting is on the wall . . . I would say, in my heart, I hope it's on 25 more years, but realistically speaking, I can't believe it's going to make it that long. I can't believe there's going to be a market for soap operas in 20 years, or even in ten years, that there is today . . ." (191)

We're at about 18 years since Corday said this. Like sand through the hourglass . . .