Category Archives: Television

Don’t be a nerd—listen to Officer Byrd

I was pleasantly surprised after my last post (so very long ago, I’m afraid) to learn that so many of you remembered Cal Worthington, his dog Spot, and the ubiquitous television ads which made him a part of my childhood. But imagine my joy when I discovered this morning that, thanks to the internet, yet another memorable character from my TV-watching youth is still out there, teaching impressionable young children to wear bike helmets, avoid downed power lines, and never eat from the colorfully-packaged boxes of poison under their parents’ sink.

My friends, let me introduce you to… Officer Byrd.

That horribly catchy theme song has been stuck in my head for about 25 years now. I’ve sung it for my wife, but I suspect that until today, she didn’t believe Officer Byrd really existed. (Michele, I expect a full apology and a retraction of those things you said about my mental health.) But oh, how he existed. There are 14 Officer Byrd videos out there for you to watch (check out the sweet special effects in episode 4). No word on the controversial episode 15, in which Byrd’s cheerful partner Officer Mike is brutally killed by the Mob two days before retiring and Officer Byrd has to break all the rules and take justice into his own hands.

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It’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot!

If you grew up in southern California, you are painfully familiar with this series of television ads:

How many times–thousands, tens of thousands surely–were we subjected to these used-car-lot ads? Each ad was introduced with a frenzied cry of “It’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot!”, followed by low-budget footage of somebody (presumbly Cal himself) awkwardly cavorting with a zoo animal that was never actually a dog. And the music that accompanied it… decades later, every word is still seared into my brain.

Oddly, these commercials always seemed to air at really inappropriate timeslots, such as during Thundercats and Duck Tales. I don’t know about most kids, but I certainly did not have any used-car purchasing power at that age. Cal Worthington at least provided me with my first lesson in marketing strategy: I quite clearly recall asking my dad once why somebody would create advertisements that seemed designed only to annoy and repel potential customers. Dad’s answer was “Well, you remember his name, don’t you?”

Oh, how I remember.

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“Say it again or I’ll break your other wrist”: thoughts on 24

Over the last several months, Michele and I have gotten hooked on the TV show 24. We’re on the last disc of season 4; at this point, I believe that I’ve seen enough of the show to offer the following observations:

  • This show features more “red-shirted ensigns” than all the Star Trek series combined. Whenever Federal Agent Jack Bauer heads off on a mission and decides to bring with him the hitherto-unknown Agent McGivens, you can be sure that Agent McGivens’ sole purpose is to take the first bullet and thus warn Jack that the bad guys are present.
  • At any given time, approximately 45% of the staff at Counter-Terrorist Unit headquarters (where Jack works) is in the direct employ of the bad guys. Next time there’s a terrorist threat, the most effective possible response would be for CTU to immediately arrest all of its own employees and start questioning them. Eventually, one of the many traitors will spill the beans and save Jack precious hours’ worth of skulking around Los Angeles hunting terrorists.
  • Are you romantically involved with Jack Bauer? Are you related to him? Are you his boss or a coworker? Perhaps you dated him in high school, or competed against him at a spelling bee in the fifth grade? I’m sorry to tell you this, but: for the rest of your (short) life, you and everybody you know will be routinely kidnapped, shot, stabbed, held for ransom, blackmailed, beaten, chased, tortured and killed by Jack’s innumerable enemies. (And sometimes by Jack.)
  • CTU is utterly incapable of defending anything from anyone. About every other episode, the following exchange takes place at CTU headquarters:

    Jack: Where’s Kim? You said you’d keep her safe while I was out in the field! Tell me where Kim is or I’ll break your arm!
    Coworker: Take it easy, Jack. She’s totally safe. She’s at the Incredibly Secure Safehouse, and I sent Agents McGivens and VanNeuwenHeisen with her. They’re pros, Jack, you know that.
    Jack [looking relieved]: OK. Thanks.

    What we, the audience, can glean from this conversation is: Agents McGivens and VanNeuwenHeisen are already dead, the Safehouse has been quite thoroughly ransacked, and Kim is once again in the hands of the terrorists. That is, assuming she even got to the safehouse, which brings me to my next observation:

  • If you are traveling to or from CTU headquarters, there is a 75% chance that your vehicle will be ambushed and you will be kidnapped. Whenever somebody says something like “Kim? Oh, she’s on her way back to CTU,” you may assume that her car has already been ambushed and she is once again in the hands of the terrorists.
  • Terrorists: have you captured Agent Jack Bauer? Have you beaten him around a bit, handcuffed him to a pipe somewhere in your hidden base, and left him there while you attend to more pressing matters? My friend, I hate to tell you this, but he has already escaped, acquired heavy weaponry, killed most of your minions, transmitted the location of your base to CTU, called in an airstrike and a SWAT team, and is right now taking aim at you from his hiding place in the ventilation shaft directly above your head.
  • The one sentence you really don’t want to hear from Jack: “You don’t have any more important information, do you?”
  • And last but not least, a final message to would-be terrorists: Jack Bauer is in Los Angeles. Do yourself a favor and find another city upon which to unleash your dastardly schemes.

Jack Bauer, we love you… and we’re a little scared of you.

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It’s popular, and people like it… let’s cancel it!

Looks like the beginning of the end for Arrested Development, the only reason to even bother owning a television these days. It looks like it’s falling victim to the TV networks’ usual logic: stumble across a show that’s actually excellent, then under-promote it, put it in a time slot so as to get it pre-empted by every conceivable sports event from baseball to curling, continually cut episodes from the season; then just give up.
Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

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“Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

Who could forget those memorable words? I see that Bill has beaten me to the punch and acquired season 1 of the Sledge Hammer! TV show. (Wait–that show went for more than one season?) My first reaction to learning that Sledge is available on DVD was rapturous joy–how many times over the last few years have I wished that show were still around? Now is my chance!
But something inside me is telling me to be cautious. When I was younger, I felt that there was truly nothing in the world funnier than Sledge Hammer. But nostalgia has betrayed me before. Other things that I thought were Totally Rad during my youth include the Dragonlance novels, Mask, Garfield (“Don’t look now, but it’s Monday again!”), and the Thundercats. Without going into the grisly details, let’s just say that these and other relics from the ’80s didn’t stand up terribly well to retrospective analysis.
So what should I do? Should I try to re-capture the awesomeness of Sledge Hammer by watching it, but risk finding out that it’s actually a terrible, terrible show? Or should I resist the impulse to watch it again, and leave Sledge and his crazy antics to rest comfortably on the pillar of Nostalgia?

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Too much of a good thing

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Michele and I are slowly making our way through the first year of The X-Files. It’s fun to watch the show as it introduces us to the characters and establishes the “rational science vs. open-minded faith” tension that made the show so interesting.
Reflecting on the X-Files has led me to a conclusion about our relationship to stories and entertainment: it’s very hard to let go of a good thing, even when that good thing is past its prime and needs to be retired. I’m not talking about lackluster shows that “jump the shark” by pulling crazy publicity stunts to re-ignite interest in a flagging series; I’m talking about excellent shows that make their point and tell their stories, but then just keep going past their expiration date without any compelling artistic reason for doing so.
The X-Files is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Over the course of 5-6 years, it told the fascinating story of two quirky personalities and their entanglement with government conspiracies, alien invasions, and supernatural horror. It was a great show; it was generally entertaining and it featured a great story arc in which both protagonists grow and mature and re-evaluate their worldviews. And then, not long after the (excellent, in my opinion) movie, the story was wrapped up: the long-running Syndicate plotline came to a close, Mulder and Scully had both grown to be better people after years of interaction and tribulation, and it was time for The X-Files to bow and gracefully exit, its point made.
But instead, the show just… kept going, even with one central actor gone and despite the fact that the major plotlines were either resolved or had become so mainstream as to lose their edge. I’m told by friends who watched the show’s final years that it continued to be an excellent and well-written television show. But why? Anything truly provocative or interesting that show had to say had been said quite effectively already. Sure, we all like the characters, but is there a compelling narrative reason to keep them around any longer? Wouldn’t we be better off if the show’s creators and writers just wrote “The End” on The X-Files and turned their creative efforts to a fresher project, instead of working desperately to squeeze several more years’ worth of marginal relevance out of it?
Or take The Simpsons. Why are they still making new episodes for this show? It has been brilliantly funny in the past, and has had a profound influence on comedy and animation. But the last two episodes I tuned in to, while probably no less competently-created than any past episodes, hardly convinced me the show needed to be around: one episode centered around mocking Walmart (“Sprawlmart”–zing!), and the other was truly pushing the envelope by being the 37,648th television show to feature gay characters/marriage. I think we can all agree that The Simpsons has said its piece and carved out its place in history, and should go gracefully into the good night.
There are exceptions to this phenomenon, although they’re rare. Babylon 5, my favorite sci-fi television series, set out to tell a story over the course of five years, and did so spectacularly. Once the story was told, it stopped, and is a much better show for not trying to eke out any more life out of its basic premise. The Star Trek shows limit themselves to seven years, but I personally wonder if seven years isn’t a bit excessive in some cases. I got my hopes up when 24 promised to tell the story of a single day, only to have those hopes dashed when the same gimmick was repeated in successive years. I found the show Scrubs hilarious for a year–but how many years of the same joke do we really need? Arrested Development is funny–will it still be funny in a few years? We can be sure neither of those shows will end because their creators decide they’re satisfied and finished; they’ll be cancelled when the ratings drop below a certain level, and not a minute before. Why doesn’t anybody ever produce a truly great show for one year, then move on to produce another good show the next? Why can’t we just enjoy a good idea for what it’s worth and move on? Why are low ratings the only reasons that shows are ever cancelled? Why must all good shows end their days having been run into the ground several years after their peak?
The answer is fairly obvious, I suppose: good shows get stretched into emaciated, purposeless shells of their former glory because we keep watching them, and because they’re “safe bets” for television networks in search of a good long-term investment. But I have this crazy dream that one day, we’ll see fewer open-ended, long-running sagas that lose their edge well before the end, and more short, concise, well-executed shows that make their point and then stop before pressing it too far. One can always hope.

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Michele and I have been watching through The X-Files, starting with season 1, and are a dozen or so episodes into the show. It’s a great show, and even the earliest episodes have aged fairly well.

But like all great shows, it can lay claim to a handful of abominably bad episodes. One of the episodes we watched this weekend (“Space,” about midway through season 1) fit easily into the Worst Episode Ever category.

And for the record, the addition of “Space” to my Worst X-Files Episodes Ever list brings the total to three:

  • “Home”–the infamous episode that was BANNED ON TELEVISION! When I first got my hands on this episode, I eagerly popped it into the VCR and hit play, excited to finally learn what those censoring network executives didn’t want me to see. Oh, if only I could rewind my life and choose otherwise.
  • the baseball-playing alien episode. Oh man.
  • …and now “Space.”

It’s a great show, though, despite a few bad episodes (and more than a few mediocre ones). Once it hit its stride–around season 3 or so–it was the best thing on television, no question. It went on longer than it should’ve… but mostly, it was pretty darn good.

update: Other Worst Episodes Ever, which have since come to mind:

  • any episode about Scully having a cloned alien baby
  • the one with a circus freak who had a mutated Siamese twin or something which would detach from his torso and eat people. Yeah… that ep was every bit as good as it sounds.
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