Now I Get Charlie Sheen.

It just dawned on me. If Charlie Sheen turned to drugs to deal with reality, it makes all the sense in the world. So would you, if you had any part in making Two and a Half Men happen every week.

The Oscars This Year: Desecrating the Temple.

What the Oscars broadcast this year didn’t seem to realize is this: The movies are our national religion. We want to worship those who make them, and those who are in them, as gods. We want to regard the Oscars as a yearly sacrament and bow our heads before it. Yes, we also want those moments of fun when everything goes wrong, and we want the  moments when, to our shocked disbelief, a host’s brilliant snark makes us go “Oh no, you din’t!,” but we want them in the context of a show that knows how seriously, deep down, we take the movies. The movies, the good ones and the bad ones, and the glamor attendant to the movies, are the house wherein our culture’s soul resides.

This year—and it wasn’t just the fault of hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, gosh-gee-willikers-out-of-place and lacking in decorum as they were—the Oscars seemed to treat the movies as “just the thing we actors and other folks do for a living,” not the national religion the movies are. The whole thing had the feel of a televised trade show. It was as if everyone involved believed that we, the audience, want the movies demystified for us, made real, made ordinary, minimized, stripped bare, made “relatable,” brought down to our level, exposed as operated by a man behind the curtain. No, it’s the opposite. We want the mystery; we want to believe in the Wizard. Stars are called stars for a reason–because they reside in the heavens. Having thrown back the curtain this year, the Oscars may or may not be able to close it again and make us believe. Perhaps the root disease is that Hollywood no longer believes in itself. Banksy was banned from the Oscars this year, but the Oscars spray-painted graffiti all over itself without him.

Memes and Tropes, Memes and Tropes, I Gotta Get Me Some Memes and Tropes.

Sarah Haskins does funny commentaries on themes in TV commercials directed towards women and how these commercials reflect (or purport to) and shape (or attempt to) women’s perceptions. This is one of my favorites, on “Doofy Husbands.”

Sarah is a Chicago native and a Francis Parker grad! (Oh, and Harvard.)

You Go, Dick Clark.

Some people are discomforted by the spectacle of an obviously stroke-disabled Dick Clark continuing on as host of ABC’s New Year’s Eve countdown show.

I’d like to offer an alternative point of view.

I think it’s swell that one network, on one night of the year, allows a space for a disabled person to host a show as if there were nothing about being disabled that required shame. The other 364.9 days of the year television can revert to showing us only shiny perfect hosts.

I give credit to ABC for this despite the possibility that they have no choice in the matter–i.e., it may be that Dick Clark has a contract with them and is holding them to it. Either way, I think it’s great, and I can handle having reality in my living room for one hour a year.

The Donna Reed Theory of American Civilization.

I love all these openings of The Donna Reed Show. The first, from Season One (1958-59), brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not sure why. It’s beautiful in every way:

Here, in Season Two, the tempo of the theme music is picked up relative to Season One, and the orchestration made “sprightlier.” Carl Betz (Dr. Alex Stone) now nearly forgets his kiss on his way out the door, remembering just in time. But the kiss is more passionate, no longer just a peck. America’s sexual mores are changing! Paralleling the alteration in the music, the typeface of the titles has gone from a formal serif to a jaunty sans serif:

By Season Four, the music’s tempo is faster still, and the ever-busier and more distracted Dr. Stone takes an extra beat before remembering to come back for his kiss. Perhaps both changes reflect the quickening pace of life as the fifties have turned into the sixties:

Now, in the final season (Season Eight, 1965-66), the music has changed from its peppy Broadway two-beat to a four-to-the-bar jazzy big band swing. Donna is looking “very sixties.” The most striking difference of all (besides the substitution of young Patty Petersen for Shelly Fabares) is that Donna remembers in the nick of time that she’s leaving the house, too; no longer the “stay at home Mom,” she presages the women’s liberation movement of a few years later:

Watching these in succession is like a mini-version of Social Change in Twentieth Century American Civilization 101. Plus, my God, Donna Reed was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. If she’d been my mom, I’d have even more serious Oedipal issues than I do.

The Live “30 Rock.”

The most likely outcome of last night’s live 30 Rock was that it would play like a good, extended SNL sketch. It was broadcast from the SNL studio, directed by an SNL director (Beth McCarthy Miller). Tina Fey was head writer on SNL, and you might have expected her to fall into old patterns when back on the SNL stage.

But the show didn’t play like that. To my astonishment and delight, it played like something from the “golden age” of live television, bringing back memories of Playhouse 90 and Studio One, shows that successfully adapted the immediacy of theater for the medium of television; in moments, it also resembled ABC’s “live-on-tape” Stage 67 musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose. An SNL sketch tends to play flat in its use of physical space. You get a lot of side-to-side, but not a lot of front-to-back; the camera doesn’t move much, and instead you get cutting from one static camera angle to another. The visual compositions on this live 30 Rock had depth, peopled in every plane, with central characters moving through scenes in the front-to-back dimension naturally, the camera dollying with them in long, fluid setups.

I wonder if this is simply what happens when you take a 30 Rock script that could have been written for filming and, for a stunt or “to see if you can,” do it live instead. That’s possible. It’s also possible Tina Fey adjusted her recipe because she wanted to capture the long-thought-dead flavor of Playhouse 90, out of affection for the style and the period; not so much working on a dare within the limits of live, theatrical television as reveling in its opportunities. That’s where I lean, because the episode was too successful for that not to have been her intention. What doesn’t seem likely is that she and the cast and crew approached it as an SNL sketch only longer. It didn’t feel at all like that.

The show, because it was contemporary in its humor and energy, proved that there is nothing dated about the techniques of live dramatic television–and honestly, that surprised me. I would have guessed the style was past its retirement age by forty-five years and would never work again. Hail Tina Fey.

Tomorrow on Oprah.

Everyone in the audience gets one billion dollars.

Young John(ny) Williams and the Best Main Title Sequence in Television History.

Running between 1960 and 1962 for 70 episodes, Checkmate was way-above-average TV detective fare. In a three-man San Francisco agency that didn’t solve crimes but rather tried to prevent them before they happened (clients would come to them saying, “Someone’s trying to kill me but I don’t know who.,” etc.), Anthony George played the serious, hard-working one, Doug McClure played the blond, dashingly good-looking one, and Sebastian Cabot played the intellectual criminologist one.

The show was created by the British spy novelist extraordinaire Eric Ambler, who was married to Joan Harrison, who was Alfred Hitchcock’s TV producer. She may have had something to do with Checkmate, uncredited. The guest stars also were a cut above. They included, over the course of the show, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Montgomery, Claire Bloom, Lee Marvin, Joan Fontaine, Patricia Neal, James Coburn, Julie London, and others.  (Incidentally, the show came from Jack Benny’s production company, Jamco! This may explain why some of the guest stars also showed up on Benny’s program around the same time.)

In addition to these elements, the show had a fascinating main title sequence with music by John Williams, who then was going by the name Johnny. (In the YouTube video, skip ahead to about the 2:45 mark, if you like, for a gander at a few seconds preceding the title sequence, followed by the title sequence.) A noirish, suspenseful, exciting, foreboding, rhythmically tense and neurotic big-band jazz theme by Williams played over a black-and-white closeup image of oil swirling through water. An IMDB commenter says the sequence was designed by Saul Bass. I can’t confirm that, but it’s certainly good enough to have been:

A soundtrack LP of Williams’ Checkmate music came out at the time, which I acquired then and which to this day is one of the most treasured albums in my collection; every theme is memorable, and the arrangements are modal big band jazz of the very highest rank. Film Score Monthly reissued it on CD a few years ago. Once or twice you hear hints of Henry Mancini (who pioneered jazz TV scoring the year before with Peter Gunn, and who used Williams as the pianist on his tracks), but the music bears Williams’ highly individualistic stamp. And that main theme is a killer.

And good news. The complete series comes out on DVD on June 22.

Boy, Am I Glad I Never Watched “Lost.”

That’s not exactly true. I did watch the first three episodes of the first season, was confused, had a premonition that my confusion was never going to get cleared up, and stopped.

Now, 118 episodes later (not counting those first three), this means that I’ve had 118 hours of my life that weren’t Lost. Just shy of 5 full days. I win.

Maureen Ryan, the TV critic of the Chicago Tribune, who loved the series, had this to say in her rhapsodizing recap of the finale:

As things got under way in the well-paced first hour, Jack and his friends, Kate Austen, Hugo ‘Hurley’ Reyes and James ‘Sawyer’ Ford, encountered the Man in Black/Locke, who revealed his plan to put Desmond Hume in the magical cave and thus send the island to the bottom of the ocean.

Maureen, you just made me more thankful than ever for those 5 extra days.

Mini-Results in the Age of Mass Media.

In this age of mass communications, I’m intrigued when work disseminated through major media conduits, which ought to attract an audience of a certain heft purely by default, manages to attract an audience the minuteness of which defies belief.

You wouldn’t think a movie released by a major studio (Idiocracy, 2006, Twentieth Century Fox) or featuring a major actress (Tilda Swinton, Julia, 2009) could fail to do at least a million dollars of business. You’d think that would be the default level of commercial failure — that at $10 a ticket, whatever the film, there’d be at least 100,000 people willing to see it just to get in out of the rain. But Idiocracy took in only $439,000 over its whole run, and Julia an astonishing $64,000. If you saw Julia, it turns out that you belonged to a club that had only 6399 other people in it in the entire world.

Now the Hollywood Reporter says that Party Down — a funny ensemble sitcom on Starz, about a Los Angeles catering crew made up of aspiring actors and screenwriters — drew an audience of 126,000 in its Season Two premiere. How is it possible for a show on a nationwide cable channel to attract only that many viewers? A test pattern should draw twice that many.

If you care to make it 126,001 on the next episode, you won’t be sorry. Each week the crew works a different uppercrust L.A. event, so while we follow the individual storylines of the continuing characters from week to week, we also get new, smart satirical observations of life in different slices of LaLaLand. Produced by (among others) Paul Rudd, the show features a talented troupe of improv-trained actors like Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan and Megan Mullally. New episodes play on Fridays at 9 Central, with repeats through the week.