Friday, April 15, 2011

Appointment TeeVee

You know that moment where you realize that there's an entire generation that comes after yours, and you don't have any awareness of them whatsoever? For example, people who were born in 1990 can drink now. Forget the horror of finding out that there were sentient creatures walking the Earth who hadn't seen Star Wars in the theater. THE FIRST TIME. Those days are fucking OVER. It's much, much worse now.

But still, the so-called generation gap isn't really that great, is it? Although our parents couldn't grok what we were into, that's because they were Adults Who Had Responsibilities. They really did grow up, and they took it seriously. Now, most people just don't. Because you don't have to. It's not unusual to find teenagers and Adults in line for the same movie. It's totally normal to see aging hipsters at Coachella. Adults are reading young adult books and watching Vampire Diaries. Adults buy iPhones, and then buy them for their kids.

Is that because the Adults of today were the first generation to grow up on that kind of mass entertainment? Star Wars really broke through that barrier. And the kids who saw Star Wars THE FIRST TIME didn't completely grow out of it and stop going to genre movies. Because why would they? After Star Wars, more genre movies came out every year. Entertainment and media also became easier to consume. Not nearly as easy as it is today, though. It IS a little ridiculous. Seriously, if there's something you can't find, you're not making the effort. I drove by a record store today (Wiki it, kids) and tried to remember the last time I was in a record store. I think it was when I went to sell DVDs to Amoeba. But I used to hit record stores almost once a week. Aron's, Rockaway, Rhino, Tower. That really amazing one in Pasadena that I only went to a few times, but it was like that record store in your dream where you find everything you've ever been looking for. I used to read reviews and then go buy records and CDs... WITHOUT HAVING HEARD ANY OF IT. I got REALLY good at knowing what something would sound like by reading a one-paragraph review or checking out the Desert Island Disc section of the free Tower magazine (that's where I found The Chameleons. Thanks, Tower!).

I spent hours in record stores. Until I didn't. It's not like there was a decision, where I went, "Right. That's over. Onto the Internet." Record stores started getting less product, then they gradually drifted away and died. It seems like a gentle death, but it isn't. Not really. Well, the death of other things, like Famolares and Chemin de Fer and Dittos weren't gentle either, but THOSE were necessary.

I used to go to bookstores, too, and spend hours there. Indie bookstores and even the big chains, which used to actually carry Books. The Border's in Westwood was a pretty fucking great bookstore. Dangerous Visions had a lot of my money. So did Vroman's. And A Change Of Hobbit. But I don't go to bookstores anymore.

Not a gentle death.

This week, the TeeVee landscape changed forever when ABC canceled One Life To Live and All My Children. Now, I don't expect that most of you paid much attention to the announcement. Maybe soaps are a curiosity for you, something your mom watched religiously for awhile and used to talk about. She'd say things like, "I remember when Jessie was the Hot Nurse. Then they put her in the blue sweater and trapped her behind that desk. But she had a LIFE back then!" People watched soaps for decades. They watched soaps their mothers watched, back when the shows were in black and white and only half an hour long. Back when they were called soap operas because they existed to advertise soap and cleaning products to lonely housewives.

But even when the housewives turned mad, soap operas endured. In fact, they began to flourish when the producers realized that the daughters of these women were watching the shows their moms watched. During the summer, the shows would turn young. They'd introduce younger characters (sometimes growing toddlers into teenagers overnight) and over-the-top summer storylines that were seriously fucking insane. General Hospital was a MASTER of this particular genre. There was nothing that show wouldn't do. No other soap had a crazy Greek shipping magnate who tried to freeze the world, starting with Port Charles (like you do). While All My Children played things fairly straight (as straight as you can in a soap), One Life To Live sent Clint Buchanan back to the Old West and turned his wife Viki into a woman with an evil split personality called Niki. The ABC soaps remind me of summer, peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread and Pepsi. And while we all knew how Goddam stupid these stories were, they were hella entertaining. Soaps were not afraid to blow through story. If they didn't, they failed. And they always gave us something to talk about. To connect about.

Daytime soaps evolved into the nighttime soaps. If nighttime soaps had been considered just plain dramas, they wouldn't have worked. But Dallas? Dynasty? Knot's Landing? My own personal favorite, Falcon Crest? Those shows were just as batshit as the daytime soaps were. They created appointment television. Because -- and a lot of you may not know this -- there was a time when if you wanted to watch a show, you had to watch it WHILE IT WAS ON. That means that you had to somehow schedule your life so you could be home in time to watch Dallas. Because there were no DVRs. There was no On Demand. No DVDs, iTunes or Hulu, so you could catch it later. You couldn't catch it later. If you missed it, you were fucked. It wasn't going to come out on video. Hell, we didn't even know what video WAS!

So when people watched appointment TeeVee, they all watched it at the same time and they talked about it afterwards. NOT ON THEIR CELLPHONES, EITHER. We had no such thing as spoilers. Nobody EVER went, "Don't ruin it! I've got it recorded!" And frankly, that was rather nice. Because it's seriously annoying to be yelled at for ruining a show that finished airing years earlier because some twig hasn't yet gotten around to adding it to their Netflix queue.

I don't know what it's like to grow up now, or to have grown up in the recent past. But I have to think that the one thing this world is missing dearly is the collective experience. Oh, we have our collective tragedies, where horrible things happen in real time and we all watch. But there is no collective entertainment. People watch things when they watch them, not when they're on. Even movie-going isn't a collective experience. People Tweet and Facebook and text and time-shift their experience even while they're sitting in the theater supposedly having it.

When the kids of today get together and talk about what they used to watch when they were younger, what do they talk about? Nobody knows what a station identification is. They don't remember commercials, or public access, or local news reporters. There's no "Do you remember watching that episode of Twin Peaks when Bob first showed up?" We remember moments from episodes of television. You can say to someone, "Remember the episode of Emergency when Johnny got bitten by the snake?" And we fucking remember. Or, most famously, "Where were you when JR was shot?" So no wonder everyone's on their phone all the time. They don't have anything to share. And if there's any question about why TeeVee shows aren't making an impact, that's got to be part of the answer. TeeVee is still applying the old model of collective experience. And it just doesn't exist anymore.

When something happens like what ABC did this week, I feel the past dying a little bit more. And it's not being replaced with anything. With any other new, fabulous life. It's replaced with Kardashians and their basketball heroes, Teen Moms, Real Housewives. I suppose that to today's generation, this is as close to a collective experience as they're going to get. And just as my parents despaired at my love for Rich Springfield and The Facts Of Life, we despair for today's generation. I'm sure they're all fine with it. It's what they're used to. But it just feels so empty. It's savage. There's nothing delicious about it. There was an innocence, I think, to what we used to love. It was darling, in its own way. Harmless. And maybe the Housewives are harmless; I dunno. But it is really enjoyable?

I'm sad about the fact that I don't do what I used to do anymore, that there's no search to embark upon, no finds to relish. And although kids today don't know what they've missed out on, I do know. And I wonder if this is how the generation before me felt, if our lives moved so much faster that they thought we weren't getting a true life experience. Well, I'll assuage them -- we got one. I wish the latest generation could assuage ME, but I'm afraid they can't. And they really are missing something special.

The death of daytime television puts a lot of people out of work. An entire industry, really. Soap operas were a wonderful training ground for many terrific writers and well-known actors. But canceling these shows also serves to put another stake in the heart of the collective experience. Now, I suppose a corporation's idea of a collective experience extends only to the live role-playing game in which they're forced to endure when they're on their retreats. And corporations are all about moving forward. Razing the past. Always looking towards a bigger pile of cash. There's no room in the corporate heart for fondness or memories. Today, it's soaps. What will it be tomorrow?

Not a gentle death.