television


I’ve been in awe of Huell Howser since I first started watching his “Videolog” shows on KCET way back when dinosaurs like Payphoneasaurus and Eveningnewspaperus Rex still roamed the earth.

In other words: a LONG time ago.

Not only was I immediately impressed with the infectious, manchild-like enthusiasm and energy he brought to exploring so many obscure aspects of his adopted state, but also the waltz of his Tennessee twang not often heard on airwaves on this side of the country –  as well as the massive biceps he would display that ever-threatened to bust the seams of the short-sleeved shirts he wore.

And despite how things changed, for the next 35 years, Huell remained Huell, always there with a microphone at the end of one of his massive arms, and always ready to be sincerely amazed by things that might not really be all that amazing.

As chance would have it I got to meet and shake Howser’s hand and express my gratitude. Susan and I had opted one weekend morning back in, like, 2005 or so, to go to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, that runs the length of Ivar between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. After wandering around and buying veggies and stuff, we went to the food area to get something to eat. I forget what we ended up getting, but as soon as we sat down to dig in, there he was, larger than life, walking amongst the tables headed in our direction.

“Huell Howser!” I called out and stood up. And he smiled that big grin of his. He drew closer and I stuck my hand out. “I love everything you do, sir!” was the best I could come up with as he grabbed my hand and shook it with a bit of a humble shrug.

Without a moment more passing he brought that energy of his to bear and asked us if we’d tried the food at one of the nearby booths. We told him we had not.

“Oh you really should,” he said followed, of course, by: “It’s amazing!”

And he was past us and heading onward through the crowd.

I sat back down and looked at Susan. “Huell fucking Howser!” was all I said. In amazement.

When Howser announced his retirement a short while ago I went into mourning a bit at the realization there’d be nothing new from him to see on television. I read of the speculation that his abrupt departure might have been necessitated by illness, but I ignored that because it was tough enough processing a Huell-less TV landscape, much less a California without him.

So when I heard the news yesterday afternoon from my mom, I continued on with my day, my first reaction being one of denial in hoping my mom was wrong. But inwardly I knew she wasn’t. And a shortwhile later when I checked online, I knew there was no escaping that I’d lost one of my favorite television personalities and California had lost its tour guide.

I take solace in knowing he’ll live forever in reruns, this one being one of my absolute favorites:

The above screen cap (click it for the bigger picture) is brought to you from the greatest television show in the history of my television viewership: Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan. Specifically, this is a moment from Season 2, Episode 9, which coincidentally is how far I’ve caught up thank the good lord for Netflix.

Now that I’m finally making up for lost viewing, I feel very guilty having not watched a single epic episode broadcast in real time on AMC. Concurrently I feel a little guilty watching it commercial-free and if not supporting at least acknowledging whoever it is that has sponsored this brilliance week in and week out since 2008. Better late than ever though, yo?

But I digress away from telling you a little bit more about the context of that moment. Suffice it to say, that RV out there on the horizon is the rolling meth lab of the show’s proantagonists Walter White aka “Heisenberg” and Jesse Pinkman. Let me digress some more: The incomparable Bryan Cranston plays Walter — as he’s known to his family and friends and students in the high school chemistry class he teaches by day. He’s known by Heisenberg, his nom du guerre, by various nefarious types and law enforcement — including the DEA (with which his brother-in-law is an agent for added complication). But his fake name is about all they know about him. Walter’s sidekick Jesse is played by the amazing Aaron Paul, and is a small-time drug dealer loser. Together they form the most dynamically dysfunctional drug-dealing duo for whom you’ll ever root.

Why is it that all-around good guy family man Walter suddenly “broke bad” (hence the title), hooked up on the hushhush with Jesse and turned into a cook of the best crystal meth ever, thanks to his skills as a chemist? Well it pretty much centers on his diagnosis with advanced lung cancer and a desire before he checks out to do an aboutface after 50 years of living and take control of his life in order to provide a big fluffy soft money cushion for his pregnant wife Skyler, and his cerebral palsy-afflicted teen son Walt, Jr.

Anything else you want to know, go find out for yourself (and that includes getting Netflix and starting from the beginning). Because now I want to quit digressing and talk about that moment pictured above from Season 2, Episode 9, titled “4 Days Out.”

The moment comes at a dire time for Waltar and Jesse who are inside that RV. Walt ordered a four-day-long marathon of a cook (hence the epi’s title) after seeing an image from his most recent CT scan and assuming the worst about the malignant mass in his chest. So the two of them loaded up the Winnebago and motored a million miles out into the New Mexico desert to crank out a metric tonne of the stuff –  It was literally do and die, for Mr. White, so to speak.

They succeed in producing roughly $1.25 million worth, and that’s the good news (and yes, it’s slightly odd still for me to refer to the manufacture of so mega an amount of illicit drugs as “good news,” but that’s the inherent charm of the show). The bad news is a mistake got made by Jesse that allowed the motorhome’s battery to die. Then, the poor kid blows up the generator that would have jumpstarted their wagon — and to make matters worse uses their drinking water supply to douse the flames. An increasingly desperate Jesse finally convinces Walter — who’s coughing up blood at this point — to let him use his cell to call for someone to come get them, but that goes bust when the cell phone dies as they learn their rescuer is motoring down the wrong million-mile-long dirt road and doesn’t find them. The two spend untold hours trying to handcrank the exploded generator and trickle charge the RV battery but when that fails, all seems lost.

Thus we arrive at this desolate scene on the morning after with the RV bracketed by the endless desert landscape and unreachable blue horizon. The camera pans laterally and stealthily reveals the corpse of the coyote masked by the brush in the immediate foreground, and I got chills as the animal’s remains crept across the bottom of the screen. Paused it there and stared at such amazing cinematography. Such ridiculous creativity. They didn’t put a dead jackrabbit or an antelope there. They put the desert’s top predator — this country’s ultimate survivor.

Speaking of which, is there an Emmy category for television cinematography… er, televisiography? If not, there should be, because of this show — each episode of which is beautifully lousy with cinematic magnificence.

But beyond the overarching genius of making me unabashedly cheer for and like two characters who are doing so patently horrible a thing, here’s why this single scene makes Breaking Bad the Best Show I’ve Ever Watched. Because they didn’t have to do it. This establishing shot could have just been the dead RV in this deadsea of badland and it would have been a visual 10. It didn’t have to include that coyote down there in the corner, but it did. This episode’s makers went to the proverbial 11 by taking this compelling image and adding this doomsday symbol — not blatantly, but quietly camouflaged in the scrub. The devil is in the show’s details just as sure as its embedded in Mr. Walter White. And I’m along for the gloriously disturbing wild ride always ready to be blown away and always surprised.

And now a word about how I got hooked on the show. A promo for the current season a few weeks ago led me to record the premiere episode to the DVR, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, the playback was all fouled up. The audio was all skippy and jerky. So I deleted it and  decided to go to its beginning via Netflix and see if it was worth playing catch-up. And now in my complete addiction I realize that the TV godz fouled up the recording I’d made for that very reason. Start from the start, they commanded. Bless them.

In the grand scheme of things, at an episode watched every couple/three days, it won’t be long until I’ve made my way through the backlog and I’ll be sitting before the TV each week, gobbling up the amazement with my eyes in real time, and finally properly recognizing those who are making this television magic possible.

I watched about 90 minutes of this Olympics. Some men’s diving. Some women’s beach volleyball. A few qualifying heats on the track. Some of the women’s marathon. It made me sad to be so apathetic, but it can all be summed up when I turned on the TV this past Sunday thinking I might watch the men’s basketball final — even though I knew the US beat Spain 107-100 because it was long over and already in the news.

Instead of the game I got Al Michaels, Doc Rivers and whoever is the headcoach of the Philadelphia ’76ers previewing the “upcoming” game and talking about how Spain either needs to hold team USA to 80 points or find a way to score more than 115, otherwise it was going to be a blowout. 107-100 was obviously not a blowout, but at that point the game was still 90 minutes away from airing. I changed the channel. Watched the last few minutes of the already-seen last-season finale of “Hell on Wheels.”

I know NBC struck ratings gold with its tape-delayed, condensed, US-centric version of what happened over those 16 days in London, and that makes me sad. Because it validates their methodology of serving up the glorious games as reheated leftovers. And the irony is that TV seems to be succeeding with a model that’s been killing print media, which struggles to make their products worth picking up and reading the day after. But that lack of immediacy that’s slaughtered so many newspapers and magazines is now working for broadcasting.

Perhaps my hindsight is rose-colored, but I remember when the Olympic events were aired when they happened — not exclusively, but substantially. Back then it seemed given that few shows on a network’s schedule were so sacred as this fortnight every four years and preemption was the rule, not the exception. I’m not sure when it changed. Maybe it began in 1988 in Seoul. Maybe 1992 in Barcelona. I can distinctly remember it in Atlanta in 1996, much to my incredulity. And it’s just gotten worse since.

NBC’s success at failure can only mean this is how it’s  going to be from now on. In 2016 I’ll be able to count on turning on the TV and see a packaged version of an Olympic event in Rio that’s already yesterday’s news.

Count me out.

Count me out.

On May 1 1969, when I was 4, Fred Rogers appeared before a US Senate subcommittee to fight for the half of the $20,000,000 in funding that President Richard Nixon wanted cut from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that year.

Watch him below as he charms the pants off of the subcommittee’s chairman Sen. John Pastore.

More than 40 years later, listening to him speak so wholeheartedly and eloquently about how much he cares about children and how important he believed his program was to them is something of an aha! moment in realizing that way back then I was one of those children for whom he was fighting.

There was a great opportunity missed to kick some serious momentary ass in last night’s mostly comatose and soap-operatic premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but given how overwrought and overacted and frankly over-tedious the 90-minute episode was to watch, it isn’t a surprise to me that the chance escaped  the series’ dimwitted block of writers.

The bulk of the decidedly drag-assed second-season starter yielded the above tweet about midway through an episode that went the little girl lost route, centering on a search for a lass who gets lost in the woods after an encounter with an apparently migratory zombie “herd” that — thanks to the crappy writing — literally materializes out of nowhere. Seriously: the extra large group of undead come shuffling up behind the survivors on the highway out of Atlanta they’ve just driven up. What did the ghouls do as the caravan of survivors motored on past a couple minutes earlier, hide? Play dead?

Stoopid. Stoopid. Stoopid. But I digress.

Anyway, the search ultimately brings the group to a church, where –shocker! — they don’t find her.  The girl’s mother then seeks solace in the sanctuary, praying before a statue of crucified Christ, and I was soooooo hoping the scribes might’ve grown a backbone and made it a daring scene, instead of a flat and cliché “please let my daughter be safe” speech. But of course they didn’t.

See if I were the one writing it, I would have given it some shock value. Mom would still be in the church, still desperate and begging for the Lord to spare her daughter’s life. But then I’d have her look up at Jesus on the cross hoping for a sign, followed by a shot from behind Jesus’ head back at her. Then I’d come back from the mom’s POV for a low-angle close up of Jesus’ face… only this time for a split second something’s different. Something’s not quite right. Then — bam! The sonofagawd suddenly rears his head up gape-mouthed and crazy-eyed and hissing at her and straining to free himself. Cut quickly back and forth between close-ups of her eyes going wide with fear and Zombie Jesus struggling crazily. Finally he wrenches a hand free from where it’s nailed and he reaches out grabbing a handful of her hair and woosh: she wakes up. Screaming, if you’d like.

A cliché in its own right of course, but one far more entertaining! Sacrilegious and certain to anger Kirk Cameron followers the country over? Absolutely. But it’s a series about zombies and apparently it’s being written by zombies, too. For Christ’s sake.

 

In the bookcase that constitutes the majority of my analog library resides a trade-paperback-sized volume. To describe it as dog-earred would be a lie. It’s spine is in tatters, its back cover is long gone. To describe it as cherished would also be a lie. Over the years I’ve shed hundreds of pounds of books donated to libraries, but this one will never be one of them while I’m still breathing.

It’s “The Twilight Zone Companion,” by Marc Scott Zicree, and it will be 30 years old in 2012. Being that “The Twilight Zone” is my favorite television series ever and for all eternity, Zicree’s reference book is like a bible to me. Inside is a synopsis of all 158 episodes that ran between the series’ 1959-1964 run on CBS.

If you look at those years and roll your eyes over something soooooo completely and squarely old, it should be noted that the upcoming Hugh Jackman film “Real Steel” is based on The Twilight Zone” Season No. 5 episode “Steel” written by Richard Matheson and starring Lee Marvin.

Open up — carefully, reverently — my copy and flip slooowly through its aged pages, beside the episode title at the top of each of Zicree’s summaries odds are you’ll find a hand-scrawled asterisk, indicating I’ve seen it. In the latter years a few of those asterisks are accompanied by a date, signifying when I saw it. Of all those episodes listed in the book, there are 146 asterisks, all painstakingly accumulated over the decades via summer vacations spent stopping and dropping whatever I might have been doing to watch the two episodes KTLA used to show at noon weekdays, augmented by the various marathons that would air.

You’d think in my glacial quest to see every episode these last few years, I’d’ve picked up the complete series box sets that have become available, but I kind of like my here-and-there haphazardry (coupled to my disposition against owning box sets of anything).

The point of all this — other than I’m a neeeeerd — is that the aforementioned 146th asterisk came today, with me seeing “A World Of Difference.” A wonderful episode in the “who am I, really?” theme also penned by Matheson, which aired 51 years ago during the show’s first season, specifically: March 11, 1960. I didn’t chance upon it on KTLA or the Psigh-Pheye channel (or however lamely they’re spelling “sci-fi” now). Instead, this weekend while slogging through what’s available on Netflix streaming, I stumbled upon the awesomness that I have 138 episodes of The Twilight Zone at my fingertips. No DVDs, no random tuning in of individual episodes or entire marathons. To see “A World Of Difference” I merely flipped the companion to the page of the first episode without an asterisk then scrolled down Netflix’s episode list and there it was.

It’s as simple as just pushing play. Which is just what I did for lunch this afternoon. To think I can now conveniently get closer to that never-before-imagined day where maybe — just maybe — an asterisk will reside next to every single episode? Wow. For a fan like me, that’s like a twilight zone of it’s own.

 

Had “The King’s Speech” not won the Best Picture Oscar last night, I had some incredulous columnist’s headline packed up and ready to tweet:

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Stutter!

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