Tuesday, November 9th, 1999
Is it really an Ally McBeal kind of world out there? I usually catch the last five minutes of the way-too-popular Fox show, in search of Fox 5 News at 10 (or bored with my other alternatives.) There she was at the end of Monday’s episode, happy without Prozac, dancing with Al Green, as Al sang a duet version (with an off-camera female voice) of "To Sir With Love" that became "To You With Love." (What the?) Damn near Singing in the Rain, with the overhead camera angles and the generally romanticized light and the lush orchestration and, well, there’s Al Green, dancing with and singing to our late nineties everygal.`
This show speaks to the inner Gene Kelly in many women, and well, um, I can respect that. Every time I’m trapped in a clog of traffic at Cheshire Bridge and LaVista, it seems there’s yet another young, single in a large yuppie scummobile (no, larger than our yuppie scummobile) who, safely ensconced behind tinted windows, is singing and swaying quietly to a muffled beat. She is, in every sense, into herself, happy with herself, pleased that although she might seem trapped into a horrific management or protoprofessional job unimaginable to her a few short years ago, she still has this private place where she can tune out everything outside her skull and dance to the music that may or may not right now be coming from the car radio.
I guess I’m not really complaining. Better a fantasy pas-de-deux with the 70s musician of her choice than becoming an oblivious careen-while-cellphone-chatting driver. But it does seem that Ally has, as they say, "given permission" to a whole generation of fantasists of every gender to tune out of brain-numbing meetings and drift off into the land of choreographed escapism, where a seemingly real Barry White is hiding behind the meeting-room potted plant, ready to burst into song.
(Well, some of those plants are really quite large.)
I suppose one way to look at this is that we’re being treated to the inner dancer of David O. Kelley, who probably sat through one too many mind-numbing conferences during his lawyer days. Yep, I can see him fantasizing about transforming into an anorexic young lawyerette who dreams up musical numbers at the workplace. (And don’t get me started on his private detective fantasies that somehow begot the misguided Snoops.)
Tuning out through tunes and dance is probably more interesting to watch on television than the real way officeworkers zone out-by surfing the web. Check your Hotmail. How’s your retirement fund doing? Download some MP3. And then, after lunch, maybe you’ll have some time to do some real work.
Ah, the productivity of the American office worker. Zoned out during the day at the office, dancing with one’s self in traffic, and then, after a light dinner, fully launched into the evening escapism of Ally McBeal (and don’t miss those spinoff shows Ally, Al, and the latest, A.)
With Calista around, who needs Calgon to "take me away"?
Friday, November 5th, 1999
It’s kind of a tidbits-scribbled-on-crumpled-sticky-notes week, first, an advertisement: tune to WUPA, channel 69, right now for the best of television as it used to be! Well, sort of.
You see, I was working and watching (that would be television) the other night around 1 am and there, in a sea of infomercials was James Earl Jones-a very, very young James Earl Jones as the president of these United States, in "The Man," the kind of old movie even TBS is embarrassed to air now. It exists in that limbo between "new enough to be run on the big networks" and "old enough to be deemed a classic"-it was released in 1972 (and is available in avocado and harvest gold.)
But wait. It was written by Rod Serling-maybe the best guy ever to bat out teleplays. And, wow. Jones is quietly powerful, not yet a voiceover cliché. The supporting cast-Martin Balsam, Georg Stanford Brown, Janet MacLachlan, William Windom, and Burgess Meredith as a wicked Strom Thurmond type-are as strong an ensemble as you’d ever expect to see decked out in early seventies bad fashion. Heck, there’s even a Jack Benny cameo-what a refreshing change from Jay Leno turning up on every movie character’s TV. (Odd, fictional characters don’t watch Letterman or Nightline. Hmm.)
For every lousy rerun, for every time their transmitter blows a fuse (they’re now rivaling WPBA/Channel 30 for most outages), they up and go and do something great like run "The Man."
It’s these little stations, like tiny WNGM Channel 34, run out of an industrial park in Athens, and WPXA Channel 14, licensed to Rome that make surfing the fuzzy UHF band an occasionally rewarding exercise. Yes, if you do have cable, they’re being carried these days, coming in bright and clear (more or less), but what’s the fun of that?
* * * * *
You notice those "Closed captioning sponsored by" ten second blurbs on most syndicated shows these days. Yep, you guessed it-another ad. More revenue. What next? "The appearance of the color green on ‘Friends’ tonight made possible by"
* * * * *
Holyfield vs. Holyfield. I’m sorry, I just don’t get what WXIA’s trying to communicate in these promos. Okay, Evander talks with Brenda Wood, we get that. He’swhat? A man of contradictions? A divorced guy? All of the above? And then there’s that profundo tagline from the champ himself: "If someone asks me, I’ll tell them the truth." Wow, compelling. The 11Alive folks seem increasingly lost these days, and the attempts to stick hip music behind nonfocused promotion does little to help. "Right here, right now!" Uh..yeah. Please, stop.
* * * * *
If you have hypertension, do not take happy fun ball. If you’re pregnant, do not look at the package in direct sunlight. When ads for prescription drugs started appearing on television, I didn’t realize it was the start of a burgeoning trade for voiceover announcers. Apparently there are those out there who advertise that their specialty is reading those novel-length medical disclaimers in a non-threatening way: "This product in some cases causes your liver to explode, but hey, live a little!"
Sunday, October 24th, 1999
Excruciating. And how was your weekend?
Watching the Braves play in Atlanta on Saturday and Sunday was painful on all kinds of levels. First, of course, there was that losing thing, which, if disheartening, is at least comfortingly familiar to long-time Atlantans. But more, it was the tone of desperation that creeps into the Braves own announcers (who I praised, what, one, two columns ago as being far superior to NBC’s Costas and Morgan)-whenever the Braves plight seems so hopeless on the field that they (and all of us) want to don jerseys and get out there to dosomething, anything.
Caray and Company’s voices-the amplified, broadcast unspoken angst of true Braves fans around the Southeast-was just too agonizing to listen to, so I switched WSB radio off and turned up the NBC audio.
Admittedly I was also in full-TV mode before the game to hear the cheers of the crowd as they introduced the Team of the Century (brought to you, we were told nonstop, by MasterCard.) Here was a true television moment-a bunch of old legends-names muttered reverently by our fathers, for the most part, standing up, live, for the most part, on a platform together mid-infield on a cold Atlanta Sunday night. Koufax. Musial. Willie Mays. Henry Aaron-of course.
Some of these baseball heroes were simply before my time-I had no idea what they looked like-how they smiled, who was taller, who got along with whom. A couple survivors all but predated television. But now, I saw-we all saw them standing together, no longer just names or faded baseball card images. And there too were the more contemporary heroes of the seventies and eighties-the likes of Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, and, I’ll be damned, Pete Rose. The big Red machine ran roughshod through my baseball childhood, and I wasn’t surprised when Rose was accused of rampant sports betting-including wagers on his own team. The guy always seemed more than willing to plow anyone down to win. But there he was, like Nixon a decade or two post-Watergate, standing up to a thundering ovation for what he did accomplish when he played the game. Fitting enough, I suppose. And even I wouldn’t deny him a moment with his peers, flawed humans all.
And since this was a precisely-orchestrated piece of televised public relations choreography, I didn’t expect that anyone else would, either.
Which is to say, I didn’t count on Jim Gray, the weasely NBC sidelines announcer I think I’ve seen at one time or another on all three networks now.
There he was with Pete Rose, in full prosecutorial mode. Don’t you think this would be a good moment to admit the gambling charges, Pete? Rose looked stunned, sweaty, furious. Isn’t this your last chance to come clean with the American people? Rose looked like he would like to devour Gray as a ballpark snack and get the hell away from that camera. Pete, why won’t you just come out and say you did it? This isn’t the time, Rose tried to say.
Maybe I’m getting older. Maybe my journalism-school instincts have dulled with time. But anyone who could make me feel sorry for Pete Rose, an old, flawed ballplayer denied the warm afterglow from a century’s end round of applausewell, Jim Gray did just that.
And the rest of the evening continued downhill.
Monday, October 18th, 1999
All season long, Braves fans enjoy games-whether aired on TBS or WUPA/69-presented by announcers we’ve all come to know and (more or less) love: Joe Simpson, Pete Van Wieren, Don Sutton, and Skip Caray. Then, during the now-almost-routine postseason, we find a familiar game in unexpected places-like Fox 5 or WXIA-with other voices not quite as comfortable as an old armchair. In fact, you might hear a discouraging word-or several-out of the mouths of these interlopers.
This can, I suppose, be a good thing. Taken in moderation, a dose of announcers not from ’round here give us a sense of how the rest of the world sees our favorite sons of the diamond. Caray and company are, after all paid by the Atlanta Braves Baseball Club, Inc., which of course is to say-by Ted. Or Time Warner. So although they’re not quite the "homers" some local announcers are, there’s no mistaking their loyalty to the corporation who signs their checks.
Joe Buck and Tim McCarver or Bob Costas and Joe Morgan have no such fealty, of course, so we get their slightly New-York-centric take on the baseball world. In terms of "objectivity" and accuracy-two admittedly hard to pin down characteristics-I’ll take NBC’s Costas and Morgan over the other two, no contest. Costas, the once and always smartest kid in school brims over with facts about every nuance of the contest, and Morgan just plain thinks about the game, and is kind enough to share his thoughts with us. Fox’s Buck does a fine enough play-calling job, but McCarver clearly has no love lost on our Atlanta boys. He’s not pure broadcasting evil, but he has his days.
Speaking of having their days, Skip Caray-in a class of his own as a baseball announcer and especially as a radio baseball announcer-does seem to have those days where he’s just plain pissed off at everything, and more often than not, during the playoffs when big ‘ol NBC or Fox are calling the shots-he’s noticeably grumpier in the announce booth-and on his pre-game talk show. It’s almost reached the point where callers phone in to ask Skip to explain the infield fly rule just to hear him go off on the voice at the other end of the line. (Seems also as if some people put their more naïve friends up to this.) Caray is (okay, like most artists) talented, yet temperamental. Of course, we don’t have to hear most artists host radio call-in shows.
An informal survey of baseball watchers 18-55 who I know indicates that what most Atlantans do is turn the Fox or NBC audio down and listen to Caray and company on the radio, so maybe our familiarity trumps grumpiness.
One strange side-effect of watching NBC’s coverage-where they apparently think they’re doing us a favor by not having the intrusive scorebox in all the darn time-is that I actually end up missing the score. I walk back in the room and I want to see the score right now.
Jeez. Familiarity breeds mindlessness, too.
Tuesday, October 5th, 1999
Gee, I wish I could sync up writing to you with my mood swings. Sure, it’s easy when you’re Hollis Gillespie, and the world is selling crack just outside your door. The only thing that’s happening immediately outside these walls is that my neighbor’s wailing on a jackhammer and to be honest, I just don’t want to know exactly what that means.
I pour myself some iced coffee, pop an ibuprofen, and, squinting, consider the grotesque pile of magazines gathered around my feet. We’ve been out of town for a few days, and it shows.
We get way too many magazines. And I’m not talking about the professional journals my wife and I must (must?) subscribe to. There’s Newsweek, with a bizarre cover this week featuring Jesse Ventura, Warren Beatty, and Donald Trump, labeled "The Wild Bunch." It’s amazing how much this weekly has transformed itself in the past half-decade, now resembling the mutant love-child of Wired and Vanity Fair. When cataclysmic international news happens, they’ll get going on it (occasionally even grudgingly giving up a cover otherwise slotted for new breakthroughs in your and my health), but they’re really a lot happier going over The Blair Witch Project in painful detail.
An inordinate amount of the critical press has spent the last week wailing on Edmund Morris, the biographer-slash-fictional pal of ‘Dutch’ Reagan. So much as been said about this bizarre exercise in writer’s block evasion that I’ll leave the role of wise critic to the Tom Tomorrow cartoon that ran last week above this space. Me, I think we should assign smart-ass penguins to write all the psuedo-biographies from here on out, and save ourselves a lot of pain.
I kick Jesse’s face out of the way with relish, uncovering-who the heck is this anyway staring at me from the cover of Atlanta magazine? Yet another in a series of generic models who almost look like Helen Hunt or Janine Turner or some darn TV actress-but aren’t. Across the top: "Who’s Killing Atlanta’s Trees?" It takes a lot of guts for a glossy publication printed on one or two ex-forests to ask that question on the cover. Ah, I’m just in a bad mood-I kinda enjoy reading our hometown citymag these days, and not just because this column’s predecessor is working wonders behind the scenes there. No, I think they’re slowly conjuring a sense of "here" that even eludes the AJC’s daily efforts.
More publication shuffling reveals Georgia Trend, which I think we get for free because someone’s under the impression I’m a Georgia small businessman. (They’ve obviously never seen me in person.) This issue features "40 under 40"-a bunch of "successful" business types, mostly young, scrubbed CEOs of companies with fake-sounding-but-real names like Directo, Visionex, VerticalOne, and ProLinia. Yikes. I read Trend for the features about tiny South Georgia counties and their electric power companies. Yep.
I begin to kick the pile of print out into the hallway. There goes a National Geographic with a pig on the cover, a Smithsonian with a lizard, and a New Yorker with a grotesque Art Spiegelman illustration of their city’s mayor. Out, damn pubs!
I tell you, just too many magazines.
Monday, September 27th, 1999
So what, exactly, is so revolutionary about Action?
If you said that the Fox sitcom breaks new ground by using lots of profanity-and then bleeping it out-you may be missing the point. Sure, that’s the hook they used to get us in the door, carefully deploying the show’s stars to talk shows everywhere armed with a clip of the pilot’s first scene, where studio exec Peter Dragon belittles a hapless cafeteria worker (whose parking spot Dragon has stolen) in a soliloquy laced with multiple applications of bleepin’ invective.
Anyone (with cable or a DSS) who’s sampled an HBO preview knows that the language-minus the bleeps-is nothing new. You’ll hear it on Sex in the City, Arli$$, Oz, or any other of HBO’s original productions, and sure enough, the HBO playground is where Action was originally destined to air. But no, for some reason (money? exposure?) the program’s producers sought out a Fox timeslot, and if this show travels over the broadcast airwaves at 9 pm eastern, it travels bleeped. And just to make the process even easier, they shot these scenes with a hyperkinetic camera that made sure something was passing in front of actor Jay Mohr’s mouth anytime he was conjugating "fuck" as an adjective. No fair trying to read lips.
Of course in the lucrative overseas markets for the show, Action will probably arrive uncensored, possibly even with a few extra scenes shot with the exposed breasts that give a show like this a true HBO-feel. But this is the United States of America, ma’am, and we have rules against that sort of thing on our broadcast TV.
No, language is not the reason this program should be congratulated for barrier-breaking. Instead, consider characters, story, plot. Here’s a show with a leading character so unredeeming, so unrepenting, so generally repugnant, he makes broadcast television’s previous attempts at "bad boys" (remember Dabney Coleman’s Buffalo Bill?) seem like complete weenies. He’s paired with Ileana Douglas’s completely original portrayal of a child-star-turned-not-quite-retired-prostitute, and together they’re trying to get a movie put together ("Beverly Hills Gun Club") that is so bad we can smell the script from this side of the TV. There is absolutely no traditional reason we would want this pair to succeed. And yet
We’re watching. We’re laughing. We’re surprised. We’re entertained. And we’re all the more fascinated because we’ve been told that the Dragon character is drawn-in some detail-from the no-kidding for-real life, attitude, and behavior of the show’s actual executive producer, Joel Silver. It’s a classic LA paradox: you don’t know whether to congratulate Silver for rich lode of material that comes from this level of self-revelation or condemn him for the Tinseltown weasel he apparently epitomizes.
But I come here to praise Action. They are telling stories that, taken as a whole, completely satisfy our prurient interest in the scummy core of the movie business. When this program completes its (hopefully successful) run there will be (writers please note) absolutely no reason to try and tell this story again. This lode will be completely mined. There will be nothing more to be seen here, so please move along.
Monday, September 20th, 1999
Someone handed me a copy of The Hudspeth Report the other day, just another one of those free papers (like this one) that decorate the entrances to restaurants, video stores, and bookstores around town. Hadn’t looked at it in a while, and when I do, it’s always with a nostalgic lilt. Ron Hudspeth was a columnist for the Atlanta Journal (before it was quite so inextricably welded to the Atlanta Constitution), and his mission then, as it seems to be now, was to chronicle the nightlife in Atlanta-at least the white boy, Buckhead-centric partying that Hudspeth and friends enjoyed and perpetuated: This bar was opening, that one closed. A TBS exec punched the lights out of some sales manager at Harrison’s last night. Ted Turner was seen dancing with an unidentified blonde. Harmon Wages threw up all over the owner of Panos and Paul’s. Ah, the early eighties.
Funny thing, there in the back of this late nineties issue of The Hud Report was a column bemoaning the good old days when the JourCon had real columnists. And, especially because these words were written by a guy calling himself Red Neckerson, I can’t really tell if he’s serious or not. He says, in a roundabout way, that the four best columnists the paper ever had were Hudspeth, the late Lewis Grizzard, the recently late Celestine Sibley, and the not late yet Furman Bisher. When Bisher leaves, he says, he’ll cancel his subscription. Why wait till then?
"Neckerson"’s nostalgia for Grizzard’s "usually hilarious vignettes on Southern life, written with enthusiam and pride" and for Hudspeth’s who-punched-whom-in-what-bar updates is a cry for recognition from the old-boy network who used to run this town, setting a significant part of its cultural agenda. Their area of influence has, now, retreated outside the perimeter, leaving intowners with a diverse population that deserves to be represented-somehow-in their daily paper.
They are not just the Hudspeths and Houcks and the people bickering on The Georgia Gang on Sundays. They are, for one thing, younger than these guys in their fifties. Some are African-, Asian-, or Mexican-American. Many are women. Sexual preference? Religion? All over the map.
The slogan of the Gannett newspaper chain (at least at one point) was "A world of different voices where freedom speaks." Nice ideal, but then again, the AJC isn’t a Gannett paper (and we may well be grateful for that.) I think the Atlanta Journal Constitution took the first steps toward that kind of ideal in the late 1980s during Bill Kovach’s tenure, when people like Ron Hudspeth began to disappear from its pages and the first tenuous voices from these other parts of our city began to be heard. How have they done since then? Well I wouldn’t put Colin Campbell (again, another white guy in his forties or fifties) up as the foremost evidence of that effort. Rheta Grimsley Johnson? Well, she certainly represents diversity, but not necessarily a voice from and of our town. No, I’d point you toward the words of people like Jeff Dickerson, Cynthia Tucker (with reservations) or even the ajc.com’s Nadirah Z. Sabir, for a sense of what this place, these days, is all about.
Monday, September 13th, 1999
Live, from a studio that looked somewhat like the stern of a Federation starship crashed into a Times Square building, there they were, Diane and Charlie, your affable Good Morning America hosts. Look, they told us (in so many words)we’ve got it going on too! We’re kinda sorta out on the street-out over the street. We’ve got fancy neon and huge displays and, well, a lot of the same old set transported to this new place.
All of which is to say: GMA launched their new set on Monday. They spent millions. They had folks from co-ownedWalt Disney Imagineering helping them out. Do you care?
Will you care much when Bryant Gumbel’s revamped CBS morning show debuts with its fancy new street level set, graphics, music, and whatnot? Are you likin’ the new Peachtree Morning digs downtown? Did you start feeling better about WGNXer, CBS Atlanta news when they painted their brown set grey? How about when they plopped Jane Robelot and Calvin Hughes into the anchor chairs? Could you draw me a picture of the set behind John Pruitt and Monica Kaufman? Uh-huh.
I found myself wondering about this Monday night, watching a little Monday Night Football-to look at the graphics and animation. And there was plenty to watch. Every scoreboard element came a-tumbling onto the screen. The featurette at the top of the show was so laden with computer-generated animation that you were hard pressed to see the athletes and coaches in and among the simulated chrome, slabs of steel, and sparks. We careened around massive helmets that clashed together with huge explosions. Hank Williams, Jr. belted out game-specific lyrics from his spaceship (I can see the meeting: "well, this year we could put him and a bunch of cheerleaders in..uh..a spaceship!") Every damn statistic was brought onto the screen with a little spherical metal robot-sphere dude that looked like it escaped from the director’s cut of Blade Runner. Replays were delivered by a big glowing ABC-thing that looked like it could crush young children on the sidelines. And it was all really loud.
The scariest thing was that if you had a couple of grand to piss away, you could have been watching this wretched excess in high-definition. Aaaaggghh!
We have truly entered the Classic Era of "Why? Because we can." Yes, I blame Fox for having started this, and no, don’t get me wrong, I do like some of the crap placed between me and the action-like the upper-left scoreboard that keeps us up to date. It’s just that a few years back when Fox outbid CBS for the NFC football rights they set themselves up as the younger, hipper network by filling the blank spaces with graphics and accompanying wooshing sounds. Since then, every sports producer is told to "think outside the box" and go beyond Fox to give us something more, more.
The Good Morning America producers were given the same charge. An on-the-streets studio worked for Today, let’s do more, more. Get outside the box on that, too.
Problem is, we watch this stuff from inside the box, and from where I sit, it’s getting hard to see the stuff we want to see for stuff they want us to see.