Smile and Nod: American Idol is the Best Show On


It’s pretty much the end of everything. Dogs and cats living together, brimstone falling from the sky … televisions turned off. While the smart people are keeping their eyes on the shrinking polar ice caps, falling water levels in the reservoirs and the rising price of oil, I’m watching the television – or, rather, not. And I can assure you the end is a lot nearer than you think.

This weekend I wanted to watch a movie in the theater. Since we’re in the post-Oscar race, post-Holiday, pre-summer dead zone, my choices were slim. Luckily, I Am Legend, the re-imagining of the Charlton Heston version of the Vincent Price film adaptation of the Richard Matheson novella, starring Will Smith, was still in the theater, showing on one screen, twice on Saturday. I was elated. I hadn’t had a chance to see it yet, and I love that story. I picked a matinee and put on my shoes, confident I’d snagged the brass ring of movie-going: the stale film. I was confident I’d have the big screen all to myself, with nothing but the sound of my own popcorn munching to distract me from total cinematic immersion. I was wrong.

Not only was the theater packed, but it was packed with kids. Far from having the theater to myself, I had to share it with dozens of incompletely gestated, cell-phone-using miscreants, the glow of their touch screens so bright I could almost read their text messages, tracking the in-joke from one kid to another as they wirelessly passed notes from row to row. I was also treated to the perennial favorite, the bargain hunting mom who ushers in her swarm of three to five children, an hour after the movie starts, just to avoid paying. Then they went for popcorn.

There’s so little entertainment to absorb right now, teenagers and thrifty moms are settling on a mature-themed, obscure sci-fi story to satisfy their insatiable lust for audio-visual input cum babysitting. You expect this sort of thing at a first-run film, but not at a movie that’s been out for two months. I felt like the farmer watching his corn crop die in the field, the Antarctic explorer forced to abandon his post on the dwindling ice shelf, and Lee Majors’ character from that movie in the ’80s, burying his race car under a slab of cement because there wasn’t any more gas. It’s the entertainment end times. And how meaningfully this boredom apocalypse stacks against the coming of the four horsemen depends on how seriously you take your entertainment. I take mine pretty damn seriously. But there just isn’t any.

The new parlor game of late is the “Find Something on TV Game.” It’s harder than it sounds. For years we’ve decried modern TV as 57 (plus or minus 300) channels and nothing on, but never has that been more true than this season. January typically marks the start of an onslaught of mid-season replacements and fresh installments of the usual favorites. This year, January TV is a wasteland. Idol is back, dear Jebus help us, and so are a slew of other reality-esque shows, but the true stars of Network TV are silent, shushed by the inability of their producers to buy words to put in their mouths.

And the networks aren’t alone in their horror. HBO, FX, A&E and countless other networks, having recently thrown their hats into the original serial entertainment ring, are now just as dry as the major leaguers. An irony that must be killing the men who’d previously have been able to write jokes about it. The talking heads, ironically, have mostly returned, but the painfully unfunny jokes of Letterman and Leno and the whip-smart satire of Stewart and Colbert have fallen flat in this new year. Like dessert before dinner, without the hearty savory crunch of the regular fare, their sticky sweet tang echoes in the emptiness, not to mix metaphors.

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I called my mother last night. Willingly. I watched Miss America. I read a magazine. I ran. These are not typical Sunday afternoon/evening activities, but a dire shortage of television, film and videogame content has reduced me to scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Writer’s Union, like a crack Al Qeada bomb team, has targeted their strike at the most vulnerable spot in the entertainment infrastructure – the few months at the beginning of the year when nothing much new happens – and in so doing they’ve robbed us of even the comfort of our old, familiar standbys. Like ER. No new ER? There’s been a new episode of ER at least every third week for 10 years. I don’t even watch ER anymore, but its absence means something nonetheless. A lack of ER isn’t simply an indicator of the apocalypse, a lack of ER is the apocalypse.

With the holiday released films still awaiting their digital second act, my Netflix queue may as well be empty for all the plastic, optical joy it represents. New films won’t hit DVD until around Easter, and new games are hit or miss until summer, with most major producers having ramped their production to hit the holiday season, or waved off their landing for some as yet undetermined future point. And television, the traditional savior of these bleak periods, is dead in the water, subdued like an oil tanker swarmed by Greenpeace zodiacs. Ah, television, you’ve betrayed us the most, as you, in turn have been betrayed by the warring parties in the writer’s epic struggle; a struggle worthy of immortalization in the form of some written word-dependent art form or another. If only.

I should be elated that writers, long the butt of every Hollywood joke, long abused, long suffering and always painfully overwritten are finally now being acknowledged as the true cause of something. As any writer worth his salt knows, writers are the cause of almost everything. Movies, television, plays, radio, advertising, State of the Union addresses (which reminds me, will the President have to cross picket lines to deliver his performance tonight?), magazines, books, books on tape, sermons, salutations and sex jokes. From the pop culture references you’re quoting at the water cooler to the semi-romantic platitudes you’re whispering to your girl, chances are almost everything you hear see or say originated in the mind of a writer. And now, thanks to the power of collective bargaining, we’re responsible for the end of the world.

Russ Pitts is an associate editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at Smile and Nod appears here every Monday.

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