Friday, November 20, 2009

A very "Seinfeld" reunion

In the annals of crappy television, nothing is crappier than the reunion show. And in the annals of crappy reunion shows, there can be no competition for "A Very Brady Christmas," wherein the kids come home for the holidays and Mike Brady ends up getting trapped in one of his buildings. (Nice job on the architecture there, Mike.)

Then again, "The Brady Bunch" was pretty bad to begin with. "Seinfeld" wasn't, and Larry David's mustering of the original cast for a fictional reunion show, in this season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is as good as it gets. Shows you what good writing, adequate rehearsal and great comedic talent can do in the fullness of time. It also shows, by comparison, how tired and lame the real "Seinfeld" finale was in 1998.

Speaking of comparisons, Larry David's current show begins to look kind of crass and clumsy too. Instead of honed scripts and comedic timing, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" relies on situations that are increasingly crude and implausible, with David and his cast barely containing their smirks while they ad-lib through each scene. The bit about the little girl's rash was just too much. Contrast that with the table read and the few scenes we saw of the fictional "Seinfeld" reunion, and you long for a return to a more sophisticated time.

That said, I loved how they handled Michael Richards' little problem with the racial epithets a few years ago. If Richards lost his mojo then, he's got it back now. The scene where he opens the door the guy in the Louis Farrakhan outfit is best in show.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fun in America: "Modern Warfare 2"

We've got modern warfare going on all over the place, but we still can't get enough of it. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has now made $550 million in about five days. That's a record not just for video games, but for anything ever offered by the entertainment industry. Suck this, Harry Potter. Last I checked, Half-Blood Prince, the biggest cash-machine in the world, had barely exceeded half that.

No, I'm not going to bemoan this American fascination with killing virtual people and blowing up virtual things. Or, in the case of Grand Theft Auto franchise, beating up virtual hookers. Fact is, violence is pretty fun when you factor out all the real-world misery, death and permanent disability. But when a video game devoted exclusively to military mayhem so completely eclipses any movie, book or long-running TV series, I suppose you have to ponder what it means.

Unfortunately, I have no idea. For me, the bigger mystery with games like this is why I suck so completely at playing them. There's an episode in The Office where Jim has his avatar stuck in a corner, trying to deploy a smoke grenade. Karen's avatar strolls up, waits until he turns around, and shoots him in the head. It's one of the very few ways I'm like Jim Halpert: not so adept on the virtual battlefield.

I do wonder if Call of Duty buffs don't occasionally speculate how they'd do in, um, the real thing.  You know: real guns, real carnage, real friends really dead. Really crapping your pants when it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Probably not. Video games have been around about 30 years now; most people are keenly aware of the vast distance inserted between reality and the monitor.

Maybe the popularity of Modern Warfare 2 isn't a great reflection of who we are as a society, but it does highlight a nice reality we tend to take for granted: As a population, we have no experience in war. None. Closest we came was Sept. 11, 2001, and like a video game the vast majority of us experienced it entirely through the small screen. We don't know much about war, and so we tend to view it as an athletic contest in which even couch potatoes might excel. 

Thanksgiving approaches, and we can enjoy all the combat we want in the comfort of our homes, without the mess or the mortality. Now that's something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Just a little unfriendly advice

Now that the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen unfriend as its word of the year, I guess it's official: all nouns are now legitimate verbs, and by extension so are their opposites. Like you, I somehow overlooked the intermediate delineation of  friend as a verb, but there's no sense being pedantic about it. Language constantly evolves. You  get on board or you get the hell out of the way.

New words arrive because there's a need for them. The concept of unfriending has been with us for centuries, but the explosion of social media has forced us to formalize and streamline the process. Used to be, if you became tired of a relationship, you had to be cagey about it: You'd see the person's number on the caller ID and not pick it up. You'd make up an excuse not to attend their dumb President's Day party. You'd be fortunate enough to spot them first in the frozen-food section of the supermarket, and you'd lurk in housewares until they were safely out to the parking lot. It was all about managing the gradual transition from friend to total stranger, and no ploy was too subtle.

Facebook and Twitter have rendered all that quaint and meaningless, not to say horribly inefficient. If you had to hone strategies for getting rid of every Facebook blowhard who came down the pike, you'd be tapping away at your iPhone 24 hours a day. (To those of you who already do that, I mean no disrespect.) Things are much easier now. If someone is posting too many random celebrity links, or is too frequently crowing about their Farmville accomplishments, they can be gone with a single tap. If somebody is re-Tweeting Rainn Wilson or marveling over the weather every few minutes, presto: they're banished for the foreseeable future. Unfriend and Unfollow: two essential tools for the busy online lifestyle.

It may sound cold, but it isn't. In the new calculus of social media, one physical friend who might have to use the bathroom is the equivalent of about 17 Facebook friends who won't; on Twitter, the ratio expands to one and 432. It's one thing to LOL at someone's retweet, quite another to feed them supper and laugh at their jokes and share with them your medium-quality wine. So don't be too reticent about it. In any garden, weeds will emerge. When they do, they're best pulled early.

Of course, unfriending is a two-edged sword. At some point, when you're conducting your weekly inventory of social-media buddies, you may notice that some of them have quietly decamped into the ether. Don't take it too hard; like you, they have a vast stable of contacts. Maybe you LOL'd at an update meant to be poignant. Maybe you misspelled the word lose too many times. Maybe that last "Which Horse's Part Are You?" quiz pushed them over the edge. No matter. Let them go. Facebook friends must be free, like Mediterranean fruit flies. Anyway, they're a dime a dozen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When bumper stickers become books

I have two rules in life: I never order the shrimp special and I never buy books written by former governors who would like to be president. So it's not really an ideological statement to say that I won't be standing in line tomorrow for a copy of "Going Rogue: An American Life." That Sarah Palin remains pretty easy on the eyes, but at this point I feel I know everything I want to know about her. Maybe a little more. In the parlance of our times, it's getting late in the day and it's time to move on, Sarah Palin-wise.

But every time such a book comes out, I always wonder: Who buys stuff like this? Who are these millions of people who immediately spring for the hardcover and propel it to the top of the New York Times nonfiction list?  What do they hope to learn from people like Newt Gingrich and Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck and Al Gore and Kate Gosselin? Do they not know that if they just wait a few months, they can acquire these tomes, unopened, for about 50 cents a copy on yard-sale tables all over town? And that the insights thus obtained will therefore be priced just about right?

I don't know. At a time when nobody's buying good books, it sure seems there are a lot of people buying crappy ones. They buy them despite knowing in advance, through blogs and infinite talk shows, every essential point the book might contain. In Palin's case, we can probably reduce it to a paragraph: "I'm quite a bit smarter than I seemed just a year ago. McCain's people and the Mainstream Media screwed me over big time. I'm an ordinary person who would prefer to remain extraordinarily famous -- with my own talk show, say, or the presidency.  And 2012 is coming right up."

Then again, I haven't read the book. And won't. Being an ordinary person myself, I guess I don't find them all that fascinating.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mac vs. PC? A pox on both their houses

I've never gotten sucked into the hoary Mac vs. PC debate. As far as I'm concerned, they both suck. They both keep us perpetually off balance, technologically speaking, and both leave a trail of obsolete peripherals in their wake.

This morning my wife got on the laptop I'd just loaded with Windows 7 and reported (I'm paraphrasing here): "This *&$^% printer doesn't work." I checked it out and was able to confirm her findings. Microsoft's own support site tells me that my little printer, about two years old, is not compatible with their latest and greatest OS. No apology, no hints on how to make it work. Basically, if I want to print anything from Windows 7, I'm going to have to take that 2-year-old printer to the curb and get a new one.

Just for fun, I checked on Apple's site, to see if a Mac running Snow Leopard might have better luck. Maybe it was time to switch. But nope. My printer's dead to Apple, too. But they'd be happy to sell me a new one that would work.

Home computers are wondrous machines, able to Hoover up hours of vitality and convert it seamlessly into useless butt time. You can play amazing games, watch streaming HD video,  play JibJab mashups and organize millions of crappy photos and videos into convenient libraries you will never use. But try to print a single black-and-white document after an OS upgrade, and things can get difficult.

I get it, OK? It's cutting-edge technology. The idea is that we upgrade everything on the same cycle and send our perfectly good stuff to the landfill with every incremental advance. But I've been doing that too long. I've owned computers since 1984 (the first was an Apple IIe) and I shudder to think of all the functioning hardware I've disposed of since then: printers and modems and headphones and monitors and mice and scanners. I love tech as much as the next guy -- maybe more -- but those landfills can only hold so much.