Monday, March 26, 2007

The [REDACTED] Theorem of Film and TV

Thousands of very smart people in New York and Los Angeles work hard at making television shows and movies that you and I will watch. Unfortunately, most of their efforts go for naught, in some part because they are unaware of the [REDACTED] Theorem. But you needn't suffer in the same ignorance. Here is the [REDACTED] Theorem in a nutshell:

The quality of a television show or film tends to be inversely proportionate to the objective attractiveness of the cast. Which is to say, if almost every member of a cast is model-beautiful, the show or film will most likely suck.

The [REDACTED] Theorem was first articulated by [REDACTED] [REDACTED], a [REDACTED] who divides his time between [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. Aside from being a sensible fellow, his primary qualification that allows him to issue theorems is that he co-managed a [redacted]for several years*.

This is on my mind right now because The Sopranos will soon end its broadcast run, and few shows demonstrate the[REDACTED] Theorem as clearly it does. Who among the regular cast members is objectively attractive? I understand that many women feel a lustful little tug in their hips whenever James Gandolfini smacks somebody around. He's a real presence, but he's not an objectively attractive presence. Whatever draw he has for the ladies comes from his comportment and acting ability, not from his veal parm-toned physique or his rugged jaw line. The rest of the cast, with the exceptions of Meadow, Adriana, Dr. Melfi and the Badda Bing girls, is rounded out mostly by performers who are old, fat, ugly or all three.

When the show first took off as a hit, television excutives at competing networks gnashed their teeth wondering how they could grab onto some of the same success. Some figured that gangsters and crime were the magic ingredient. We got shows like Boomtown and Kingpin. Both featured prettified casts. Both failed.

Some said that these shows, on broadcast TV as opposed to cable, were hamstrung by the decency standards of the medium. No explicit sex, no dirty words, no gory violence, so they flopped. Of course that's a cop out. They also sufferred from mediocre writing and lovely casts.

More recently, NBC has gone back to the same well and come up with a bucket full of criminal pulchritude called The Black Donnellys. This time the hoods are Irish, and they all look like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. So far the show has not gained a life-sustaining audience.

I understand why television and film executives put pretty people in their casts. Depending on our individual proclivities, we all like to look at a pretty girl or boy when she or he walks by. It would seem to follow that when we plop down on the sofa for the night, we will want to look at pretty girls and boys on TV. Now I'm not saying that the [REDACTED] Theorem holds that people only want to watch ugly folks on TV. Rather, the [REDACTED] Theorem suggests that an overly beautiful cast is a marker of core dramatic or comedic weakness in the scripts. Faced with a shoddy dramatic foundation, the producers grab a handful of lovelies and trowel over the show's crumbling underpinnings. It almost never works.

Now, if you don't believe the [REDACTED] Theorum, consider the casts on the following list of shows that lasted ten to eleven years. Sure, there are lookers here, but not a lot of them

The Lucy Show
My Three Sons
Hawaii Five-O
All in the Family
The Jeffersons
Different Strokes
The Facts of Life
Hill Street Blues
Married With Children
Beverly Hills 90210
Murphy Brown
Murder She Wrote
Law and Order

Friends, Beverly Hills 90201 and ER are the three shows that stand out as having good-looking casts. These are the exceptions that prove the rule. Friends and ER were lauded for the quality of their writing, 90210 garned most of its fans based on its camp appeal.

Many of the other shows on the list seem to practically celebrate unattractiveness. Who would ever sleep with Mr. Drummond, or Miss Garrett? How many teenage girls ever mounted posters of Andy Sipowicz above their beds? David Caruso, the handsome NYPD Blue cast member, left the show early on, perhaps believing that his red-hair and doll face would translate into lasting and lucrative fame elsewhere. We didn't see him again until he was a whole lot less handsome on the cast of CSI: Miami. Meanwhile, Dennis Franz kept on collecting awards and cashing fat paychecks.

More recently shows like My Name is Earl and The Office have earned devoted audiences, while shows like Coupling and Kitchen Confidential failed almost immediately. Of course the cast of Lost is almost pornographically attractive, but up until the second season, the writing was some of the best on TV.

To bring it to the film world, consider Pulp Fiction and all the cheap knock-offs that followed. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson did not look good in that movie. They might have looked cool, but they did not look good. Even Uma Thurman wasn't at her most attractive. In many scenes she looked like a gangster's coke-addled wife. Juxtapose that movie with Two Days in the Valley. Much more attractive cast, completely forgettable motion picture.

*Since the original posting of this essay [REDACTED] has contacted me. He called me early this morning, from a number I didn't recognise. Figuring it might be someone I did not wish to speak with, I let the call go to voice mail--as we all do in these situations. When I checked the voicemail, I heard [REDACTED]'s familiar voice expressing discomfort that I had posted his name and identifying characteristics to my blog. So far as I know, [REDACTED] is not engaged in any criminal, anti-social or anti-government activity. Nevertheless, he guards his anonymity aggressively. I called him back. He insisted that I remove his name from the site. He suggested that I take full credit for the [REDACTED] Theorem. "It's actually kinda dumb," he said. "Call it the McCloskey Theorem." I politely declined the offer and told him that it is not dumb, it is an often over-looked elemental truth. He continued to insist that his name be removed from the site. He also suggested that the mere fact that I have a blog demonstrates that I have too much time on my hands. After a protracted and at times heated discussion we reached the compromise seen above. I removed all descriptors of his person other than his surname. I also agreed that if anyone contacts me and asks to be put in touch with [REDACTED], I will deny this request and explain to whoever asks that they have the wrong [REDACTED]**.

**Since the initial redaction of [REDACTED]'s Christian name, it has been made emphatically clear to me that any further public use of his surname will not be tolerated. Most recently [REDACTED] called me from a highway rest area, telling me that he was on his way to my house from [REDACTED]. On his arrival he would crush my thumbs with a vice-grip. The full redaction you see above, and in all other posts is the result.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The New New Journalism, ie Freaking Nonsense

I just tried to look at the New Yorker's new website. As magazine websites go, it's nicely done. Blah design blah interface blah. Once I started reading I remembered that the New Yorker provokes my rage issues.

But still, I wind up looking at the thing. In an attempt to avoid becoming what the NYPD calls an Emotionally Distressed Person, I'll bleed off some bile here. The New Yorker's regular features are as bad as any blog in terms of intellectual content and honesty. That they come with the imprimatur of the New Yorker stamped on them makes it worse. Take this article about the looming consolidation of satellite radio by James Surowiecki as an example. His shtick goes like this:

1. Introduce a topic of the day. This is often a financial concern peripheral to something people actually care about. No one gives a rat's ass about satellite radio regardless of whether or not Sirius and XM merge. This is why Sirius and XM want to merge, so they can fuse the vanishingly small market share that they currently split. People do care about market consolidation and squeezing out the little guy though. This, the conventional wisdom, is Surowiecki's boogeyman.

2. State the conventional wisdom. Here is where we get into the facile meat of any New Yorker essay that's not straight-up reportage. Surowiecki will define conventional wisdom here so that (in step three) he can knock it down. This is fine rhetorical work, except Surowiecki cherry picks whatever data he uses to build the definition of "conventional wisdom." The point of this, ultimately, is to present "conventional wisdom" that looks faintly stupid in the august pages of the New Yorker even before Surowiecki knocks it down. In this essay he reaches back to the bad old days of government activism in anti-trust law. According to Surowiecki telling, during the years after WWII the government was power-drunk on anti-trust law, squashing sensible mergers of shoe companies and supermarket chains that in no way threatened the free market or the economy at large. He goes on to point out that in this case, satellite radio networks compete with terrestrial radio networks. See, it's actually an all out melee in the airwaves. Every broadcaster for himself. AM, FM and hi-definition radio trading blows with satellite on a daily basis. I mean obviously. When Surowiecki reaches the point at which he knocks down this conventional wisdom, New Yorker Readers from Amsterdam avenue to Telegraph Hill will break their own arms patting themselves on the back because they are just as smart as the great James Surowiecki.

Of course there is no perceptible competition among terrestrial broadcasters. But, uh, let's not talk about it. Right now we're slaying the dragon of conventional wisdom.

3. Suroweicki now says that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Why? Because he said so.

4. Now, having upended conventional wisdom, Surowiecki paints a fairy-tale vision of what will happen when we all smack our foreheads and realize how dumb we've been. In this case, Bob Edwards and Bob Dylan will join hands with the starting defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers and descend from the heavens into your one, single, satellite radio receiver. Howard Stern leads the way, astride a humming Sybian. They'll do it for cheap and your auditory cultural options will swell like fibroid tumors.

What fucking nonsense. And every article by Surowiecki, that guy with the afro, and the other one who blabs incessantly about his annoyingly precocious kid goes the same way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Please Hate Me

I met a friend for sushi today. It seemed like a civilized thing to do, two grown men getting together for lunch. Then, I don't know exactly why, but the conversation went to a strange place.

My friend said, "Have you ever beaten anyone up?"

"No. Not definitively, no." There were a few occassions when I bullied some younger kids on the way home from school. There have been fights which could be generously scored as draws. I have also sucker punched people. But no, I've never beaten anyone up. The phrase conjurs a vision of pulpy flesh, unconsciousness, broken bones and snapped tendons, shoulders loosed from their sockets. Or at least an unrequited black eye. I've done none of these things.

He told me that he had, a long time ago. But in the intervening years he'd come to find out that he can not intimidate people. "Whenever I try to pick a fight, guys always think it's a joke. They laugh at me." My friend is an athletic guy. Not a towering figure, but decently-sized. He runs three miles a day. In a fight his stamina would serve him well. Distance running also suggests a tolerance for pain, and perhaps that tolerance would also carry him through a fight. If the a guy wilts in agony after a few well-placed punches, he loses, no matter how badly pummelled his opponent may be.

We looked at each other warily over our lunches. I thought about challenging him to a fight, a school-yard style brawl in the nearby park. But I'd be full of raw fish in a few minutes, and what I really wanted was a cup of coffee.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Fuck You, I'm Drunk

A long time ago I was dating an Israeli girl. One night her family had a bunch of people over for supper. Despite the fact that they hated me, I got an invite for the evening.

Before I go further with this story, I should remark that people often mistake me for a Jew. There's something about mixing Sicilian, Calabrian and Irish blood together that yeilds a person who looks a bit jewish. It's never bothered me. I like jews and they seem to like me, unless I have dated their daughter.

While we were sitting in the living room eating olives and whatnot--and not drinking, if I recall--one woman started expounding on the drinking and marital relationships of the Irish. She said, "They get drunk and beat their wives." She said this as if it were a universally held truth. Puppies are nice, ice cream tastes good and Irishmen beat their women.

I said, "Oh really? I did not know that about the Irish."

"Yes, they all do it. They go out and get drunk. When they come home, they beat their wives horribly."

"Duly noted."

We all know the story about the drunken Micks. My grandfather warned my father at a young age, "Drinkin' is the Irishman's disease Johnny." As a result I never saw my father take more than two drinks in an evening until I was thirteen years old. When I finally saw the Old Man get a little drunk we were in Sicily, visiting my Mom's family. To this day, I only see him get even a little drunk when he visits me in New York.

So these last several days, in the lead-up to St. Patrick's Day, my irriation has increased incrementally each time I read some crack about the drunken Irish. The MTA instituted a one-day ban on alcohol on commuter trains, in honor of St. Patrick's Day. Gawker has thumped on the gag of the Drunken Irish all week. They have added a proclivity for gay-bashing to the mix of ethnic slanders.

Well, whatever, screw you all. Tomorrow I'm getting drunk. Ireland is the only nation in Western Europe that has never invaded another. Virtually every "English" writer you can think of his actually Irish. Without the Irish the western world would be a drab, sober mob of dullards. So drink up and get ready for a beating.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Burn Your Own Damn PJs

A bunch of applicants to medical school have been busted for plagiarism after they all stole an essay about burning their pyjamas at a young age. It is a nice dramatic detail to a story, after all.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Edwards: Hitting that Same Sour Note

John Edwards continues to make us feel bad about the way we live. I hate to say it, but if he keeps this up, Hillary is going to clean his clock

A Prayer

"I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me: but there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure."

-Captain Sam Bellamy.