Thursday, January 26, 2012


I saw mentioned on the news this week a story about the MBTA doing away with advertisments for alcohol on their trains. Now, for those outside the area who don't know, the MBTA is the transit system in and around Boston, commonly known as "the T". If you watch a TV series set in Boston, you'll see the round T signs everywhere.

Anyway, the news broadcast had a poll question as to whether the public thought it was a good idea for the T to stop taking ad revenue from alcohol manufacturers. I should also mention that right now the MBTA is in a major debt crisis; they are, if I recall the number correctly, 160 million dollars in the hole. There is serious talk right now about cutting bus lines, late night trains, service to certain areas and drastically raising fares. These things make frequent commuters angry, especially as some of us think they've been throwing money away on useless stuff for the past five years. So the question really being posed is, can the T afford to be so choosy about where its ad money comes from?

The argument being made is that they don't want to advertise these things were children can see it, and thus be encouraged to drink. The vox pops interviews mentioned that again and again: "Think of the children!" And I am so tired of that. To that I say a hearty "Fie!"

Why is it that when it comes to drinking, the public thinks children are moronic sponges? The ads are not saying "Hey kids, let's drink!" This isn't about marketing something to children; it's no Joe Camel situation. This is a product marketed to adults. Underage kids who are going to drink are not going to do it just because they see a sign with a beer on it. I know that people are going to disagree and say, "Yes they will! Children are impressionable!" Well can I ask you then, how many print ads for sports cars have resulted in underage or unlicensed driving? ...Can't answer that, can you? Why? Because nobody is bothering to ask the question, since it is absurd on its face. And I think alcohol ads are not any different.

If we start denying ad space for fear of influencing children, how long is it before we stop advertising cola, or cookies, or video games? This sort of thinking sounds good and gets people all riled up, but it really means the death of print advertising. Frankly, I think print advertising is LESS dangerous than video ads where people are depicted drinking. Most print ads are just a picture of the product with some text. We're afraid that ads will make people want to drink? Well, that just means the ad is doing its job. It won't have any special effect on children. And remember, kids can't buy alcohol; so why make the issue about the train ads instead of about cutting off access to the product?

If a print campaign were really so influential, then all those anti-smoking ads should have resulted in a drastic decline in teen cigarette use. Did they? I don't know, I'm not a statistician. But I think ultimately a few advertisements aren't going to make kids go out and break the law any more than an ad for body wash is going to make a kid want to immediately take a shower.

The T needs all the money it can get. Can we please stop pretending that people magically become smarter only at 21? Because after listening to these arguments, the opposite seems true.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

So... Random Question

Is it wrong that some days I just hope that somebody punches Joel Osteen in the face? Not like permanent damage or anything, but I think a good sock in that smile of his might do him some good.

Am I the only one?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Abandoned Concepts

This week's episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a very clever gag in which Barney proclaimed himself leader of gang, and re-imagined the opening credits to be all about him. It then happened a second time later in the episode. Normally, I'm a big fan of these kinds of self-referential gags on television every once in awhile. It rewards viewers who watch every week, especially when it involves opening credits. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that the joke in this instance was funny for a moment, but betrayed the underlying conceit of the series. It bothers me when series abandon their conceits in this way, and that's what this post is about.

Before I go further, I do want to say there are times that I love gags like this. X-Files fans thrilled to any time the "The Truth is Out There" tagline was changed at the end of the opening. There was an arc on The Office a couple years ago where Michael started his own paper company. For one of those episodes, the opening credits were redone with images of this new office. I thought it was very clever. Or Community, which derives it's very existence from being "meta" and referential, changed the artwork in the "cootie catcher" paper folded thing in its opening for the Dungeons and Dragons episode. But what happened on How I Met Your Mother ultimately doesn't work in the same light. The conceit of the show is that Ted in the future is telling his children the long, convoluted story of how he met their mother. The series then should always be in Ted's point of view. The opening credits are done as a kind of photo collage of moments of him and his friends. They work, out of the kind of nostalgia of telling your kids "this is how we used to be, back when I met your mother." But the series has recently been drifting a little too far off that road with some outside stories that really have nothing to do with this main thread, and episodes being told by other characters' voice-overs. That means we have to think Ted is telling the kids what his friends are telling other people; a flashback in a flashback. This used to be handled better in the earlier seasons, but now for the sake of the show's longevity it is stretching beyond its concept. Which is why I ultimately don't like the Barney joke this week. For it to work, it means that Barney is aware of this as a TV show, or aware of there being opening credits like this. While it's funny for a moment to call the show "How I Met Your Barney" and all that, it flies in the face of the show's concept. Had this been Ted proclaiming leadership and changing the credits, that would have worked because the series is Ted's point-of-view. It sadly spoiled the joke for me on reflection, in a way that other similar gags had not.

Other current sitcoms are running into similar issues related to their concepts. Parks and Recreation is brilliant, but since the third season has lost some of its early drive. The impetus behind the pilot, the entire first season, and much of the second, was that Leslie promised Anne that she would build a park on the vacant lot by Anne's house that was a pit. Somewhere in season 2 they filled in the pit, so that was good. And for awhile the series had an excuse; they wrote in that the parks department was bankrupt, so season three was more about acts of good faith to get their funding back. But it's at a point now where it seems they've forgotten why they started. Is Anne ever going to get that park? Leslie made a promise, and every new week that goes by without any progress on that front makes me wonder why Anne is still friends with Leslie. At some point, shouldn't Anne say, "Hey, whatever happened to that park you promised me?" I wish they would at least address the issue in an episode here or there.

Fringe is another series that changed gears in its second season. This was mostly for the better. The first season was all about unrelated strange events being part of "the pattern", and tying into some complicated business about multiverses. This was streamlined down and the show got better, but for so much of the past couple seasons this has seemed like everything in season one that was supposed to be somehow related was completely ignored. From what I've seen, season 4 may finally tie these ends up a little more. But I haven't liked the way some of it was handled.

And the list goes on. The Office was set up to be shot in documentary-style, which spawned a number of imitators. The British version uses this conceit to its advantage, since UK televison series are generally shorter. But the longer the US version goes on, the more the logic behind this actually being a documentary is thrown away. It's easy to tell a joke using a talking head, but that cannot be all the form is for. Modern Family uses this structure, but it's never really pretended to be documentary; it's more a way to talk to the audience, the way that Malcolm (Malcolm in the Middle) or Clarissa (Clarissa Explains It All) used to do. But The Office was and is a documentary. They used to make reference to the cameras every now and then. Parks and Rec has done a little better job maintaining that same veneer, but it gets harder and harder to buy the logic of The Office. I'm constantly stopping and thinking, "Where is this being shot from?" every time characters drive places. The episode where they attended Andy's play was otherwise fine, but I was supposed to believe a camera crew was there in the aisles and backstage shooting all of this? Also, how long is this crew going to keep shooting these people? The logic reached its breaking point several years ago when they did a clip show. I forget what the set-up was, but Toby was in an interview with somebody and as they discussed certain things it would cut to old episode footage. Sorry, that's stretching the concept beyond its means.

What I'm getting at here as that no matter how good a series is, it cannot betray its own rules. Even if its funny, an audience has to expect certain parameters. I could go on about various other ways many different series throughout the years have broken their rules in some way, but I don't want to belabor the point. Suffice to say that as much as television pilot season thrives on these high concept ideas, the writers need to remember that these concepts must sustain a long-running series. M*A*S*H shouldn't have run as long as it did, nor should That '70s Show (especially since the latter begin around 1977). No series should get to the place where an audience asks, "But how does this relate to meeting their mother?" or "Shouldn't these characters have graduated by now?" To abandon these conceits may bring momentary joy, but ultimately betrays the origins of the work. No one part is worth sacrificing the whole. A television series is a house of cards; it can build as wide or tall as you like, but attention must be paid that it doesn't topple unnecessarily.