Sunday, April 23, 2006

Yeah, so I was a mathlete too. So what?

Here's a little extended version of a piece I wrote for FlowTV. It is, admittedly, quite snarky, but I do like my description of Freaks and Geeks. Though I wrote this a couple of years ago, my love for that show has not abated. I would, however, like to know if there's any tv-obsessed folk out there who know if there's been any writing on the tv-on-dvd phenomenon. I'm a little behind on my tv-crit...

My Own Private TV

With the “TV on DVD” phenomenon in full effect (Golden Girls, My Little Pony and Friends, and Too Close for Comfort have all been released on DVD), almost any show you’ve ever loved that’s been either relegated to reruns or sporadic glimpses on various cable channels is available for a small fee from As an absolute TV junkie, I’m happy that I can get a hold of my favorite small-screen gems in their pristine, commercial-less form rather than buying some crappy VHS version off Ebay.

Thing is, for those of us who were, for many years, in the business of trading copies of television shows, what does this all mean? My somewhat fuzzy full season of The Ben Stiller Show was a prized possession that became worthless on 11 December 2003, the date that the complete 1992-93 season was released on DVD for the low price of $26.99.

Billed as “the funniest show you never saw” since it was originally cancelled after one season on Fox, my video copies of Ben Stiller episodes made me part of a larger community—people who’d seen the show when it originally aired, but moreover, people who cared enough to share quality television. Sure, it’s great that Ben Stiller and his sketch comedy brilliance is available to everyone, but it seems that something’s been lost. To more fully understand this issue, it’s best to recount the tale of the supposedly triumphant DVD release of another one-season stunner: Freaks and Geeks.

On one of the many commentaries included in the eighteen episode set, creator Paul Feig talks about how he wanted to make a television show about teenagers that didn’t trade in stereotypes—avoiding the archetypal nerds with taped glasses and, on the other hand, steering his focus clear of the beautiful people. The pilot’s initial scene clearly illustrates his vision. Opening with a vacuous conversation taking place on the bleachers between a jock and his perky, blond cheerleader girlfriend, the camera immediately juts downwards, under the seats, and plants itself on a group of scruffy kids: the “freaks.” Fittingly, the soundtrack shifts from some upbeat strumming to Van Halen. Clearly this isn’t going to be Dawson’s Creek. After one freak hails the merits of Jon Bonham’s drumming, the music swells and we shift to the “geeks”; they’re laughing at each other’s Bill Murray impersonations when interrupted by a group of slightly (and only slightly) “cooler” looking bullies.

It’s been only three minutes, but at this point Feig’s established his characters. They’re not cardboard cutouts of various high school archetypes, they are real kids—as Feig himself puts it, “people I knew.” We don’t have the extremes, the heroes and zeroes here; we’ve got kids who simply go about the business of growing up. It’s simply not possible to find a comparable teen show that, over and above presenting realistic teen angst, simply let kids talk to each other. This truthful approach garnered passionate fans, yet poor ratings, and it wasn’t exactly appreciated by the network hacks. Executive producer Judd Apatow famously revealed that NBC programming director Garth Ancier wanted “the kids to have more victories”—the cookie-cutter climaxes so prevalent in most teen movies and TV shows.

Avoiding the classic showdown between the cool kids and the dorks (think Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and, more recently, Mean Girls), the truthful and realistic Freaks was riveting viewing for those who could relate. When the show was cancelled after months of futile fan protest in March 2000, fans were left to tape and trade episodes of their beloved show. Postings on the Freaks net message board are testament to this fact—not only are people furiously discussing the show in detail, but for the years between initial fall 1999 airing and DVD release in April 2004, the board’s threads are chock full of trading requests. Ebay bootleggers were a last resort, providing desperate fans with access to illegal tapes and DVDs.

Eventually, after a long struggle for music licensing (original licensing agreements do not fit with the new DVD reality) and 40,000 signatures, Shout! Factory made the dream of Freaks fanatics come true. The show that was yanked off the air because not enough folks were watching it would now be available to anyone who could cough up the cash to buy the box set.

I should be happy, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the process that brought Freaks to DVD re-inscribes the very same type of narrative that the show itself tried to avoid. Feig once said that “most people, when they write a high school show say, 'If I knew back then what I know now, boy would I have ruled,' and you know, they write the show that way. So all of these kids are popping off good ones and they're making the other kids look dumb.” The fans who related to Bill, Neil, Sam, Lindsay, Nick, Kim, Ken, and Daniel ended up in a situation where they had to think of a scheme to get back at the nasty, popularity-hungry executives who took away their show. Much like the stereotypical high school power struggle, the fans took the role of the nerds who had to prove themselves—they had to figure out how to pop off the good ones that would get them a win. Here we find a victory that might make Garth Ancier proud.

Sure, Feig and Apatow created a “Special Edition” box set that was initially offered only to committed fans who’d signed the petition, but the fans vs. network situation ends up much like Feig’s description. It’s nice to rule the school, but once you are in with the popular kids (as one episode of Freaks made painfully clear) you tend to forget where you came from.

The community that is created as a result of love for a TV program—especially a short lived one—is disrupted by this instantaneous availability. For the average viewer, before the advent of VCRs, television was an incredibly ephemeral medium. VCRs gave way to personal taping and committed fans could dutifully collect episodes of their favorites. TV on DVD (and TiVo, for that matter) makes any of that care—not to mention the patience required during the wait for the next episode—irrelevant. The ability to watch episodes on DVD not only eliminates any waiting for commercials (or the fast forwarding through ads), but it also enables the viewer to consume television at a much faster—and perhaps thereby less thoughtful—rate. You could down the whole of Freaks in a single day if you wanted to.

Interestingly, a recent topic on the Freaks message board asks viewers to state exactly when they first saw the show—some claim to have been in on it from the first commercial teaser, others admit that they were initiated only after it came out on DVD. I know that I should celebrate rather than disparage these newcomers, but regardless, the irony of the Freaks case throws into sharp relief this new relationship viewers must develop with television and the shows they care so deeply about. What will it look like? Until then, however, does anyone have any tapes of Undeclared they’d like to trade?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Salut Vero!

Bon: mon amie Vero (est je sais que c'est a cause de mon stupidite que je peux pas mettre les accents sur mes lettres!) a un blog qui est vraiement interessant. Si tu veux lire (et voir) les commentaires sur une variete de sujets, clique (es-ce-que "cliquer" est une verbe?) ici.
Excuser ma francais! J'essaie de me debrouiller, mais c'est tellement difficile!

Holding the Faith

Here's a little something I forgot to post a while ago.
In 2001, a young man took Jamaica by storm with a song called “Virtuous Woman”. Born Mark Dyer in 1979, the deeply religious artist and trained engineer who calls himself Warrior King continued to crank out niceness with tunes like “Power to Chant” and the spiritual anthem “Never Go Where Pagans Go.” His second album was released this fall. For those of us who enjoy conscious, cultural reggae, Warrior Kings Hold the Faith is a real treat. Not only are the riddims terrific—the production duties are ably split between Bobby “Digital” Dixon and Sheldon “Calibud” Stewart—but the message behind the music is overwhelming positive and uplifting. On a rainy fall day, Warrior King made me forget about the overcast skies as he spoke to me about his message, his faith, and his love for Jamaica.

EM: On your first album you sang a song about the value of education and on this new record there is also a tune that deals with the importance of education. This is clearly a big issue for you.

WK: Jamaica is in a state of turmoil right now, basically because of the lack of educated people and youth. Majority a lot of illiterate people are there. You have big people down there who are in their forties and they can’t read or even write. So it’s easy to resort to crime and violence. If someone is educated, they can reason out and come to some sort of reasoned terms, but someone who is not educated prefers to resort to violence. So this is exactly why they mash up the society. Education, as his majesty teaches us, is the key to betterment and completeness of living in this modern time. So as a servant of his majesty, we emphasize the importance of education, because education brings liberation. It’s good for every nation.

But, if you want a good education in Jamaica you have to have money. A lot of money. I never used to pay school fee, but now the parents have to pay school fee for primary school, basic school. I have a likkle son; me have to pay $6000-7000 Jamaican dollars a month. That’s just a normal, basic school. So you see, most people can’t afford that so it end up that the youths, the parents carry them to go work ‘pon the street side. In Jamaica you see a lot of youths at the stoplight, wiping glasses when they should be in school. You can’t put blame because their parents cannot afford it. They cannot buy books for them, they cannot buy uniform, they cannot pay school fee. They cannot afford the fare to send them to school. Education is the key for any nation’s development. That means education should be free. You haffi consider the poor.

EM: Clearly you feel this on a deeply personal level.

WK: Yes. You see, I had it rough. I was grown by a single parent, my mother. It was very rough, rough. And my mother haffi work, night and day to send me to school. So I didn’t waste time where education is concerned.

EM: You have spoken to youth—especially youth who are interested in the music industry—that it is important to stick with school to have a back up plan.

WK: The more educated you are, the better you are. Because, what I think is that nuff Jamaican artists have the attitude that they have because of illiteracy. They don’t know how to conduct themselves so that give them a bad attitude. Education makes you more rounded so you can deal with the interviews, relate to people more better—all levels of people, whether they come from uptown or downtown, no matter what category they come from.

EM: You’re coming from Portmore—the parish right next to Kingston, Jamaica. There are a number of artists coming from there recently—Gyptian, who won the Portmore talent contest last year and has a huge hit with “Serious Times”, and of course I Wayne. There seems to be a similarity between you and these other artists from Portmore in that you are all very concerned with consciousness. What do you think it is about Portmore that leads to the development of so many strong artists committed to conscious, thoughtful lyrics?

WK: Definitely, definitely, because you know there are many Rastafari in Portmore. So that stimulates the youth to come out with this type of vibe, you know? But at the same time, some youth see the culture and the vibes and they jump on the bandwagon too.

EM: But isn’t it better to jump on the bandwagon of cultural music than to jump on the bandwagon of less positive vibes?

WK: Ahh, definitely. Negativity is bad. But you know Portmore and Jamaica on a whole they have a lot of conscious people there: Bob Marley, the foundation, same way, you know what I mean? Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown and those artists, Luciano, Beres Hammond. They don’t rate violence so people know that positivity is the way.

EM: In terms of Portmore itself, you still live there and give back to the community.

WK: It is very important to remember where you are coming from. Although I was born in the country, in Clarendon, I moved from the country to Portmore. I moved to Kingston in my teenager stage. But it is very important to give back to the community that you are coming from. Cause your roots and your foundation that is. Right now, we come from Waterford and right now we have a youth we’re teaching him the right riddim, his name is Persistence, and he has a single coming out entitled “Foundation.” That’s a way to give back to the community, by helping some of the youths who have the potential too.

EM: Your music is very conscious. Do you think this trend is going to continue in Jamaica?

WK: It is not really continuing, I just speak a positive sound on a record. Whenever you hear that positive music is on the rise, it is always being recorded. It’s the people in the media you see. The media people highlight the vibes. They highlight the slackness and dem highlight the positive, you know what I mean? Positive music has always been recorded in Jamaica. Every since reggae music has been established in Jamaica, but it is the media, sometimes they don’t highlight the positive music but now, we see a lot of people highlighting the positive music which is good, but positive music has always been recorded and done in Jamaica.

EM: You just need to encourage people to pay attention to it.

WK: That is the thing; that is the thing.

EM: It seems that some people don’t like to record political music because of the potential for controversy.

WK: Everyone has the right to speak their mind. So they shouldn’t be afraid to deal with politics. Politics are realistical issues that need to be addressed. Reggae music that come from Bob Marley, it mention social issues. That’s the foundation of reggae music, that’s how it start out. Reggae artists address social issues where political issues are concerned or crime and violence are concerned. The condition of the roads or the condition of the country, definitely.

EM: Your faith obviously means a lot to you and I notice that on the cover of your album you have pictures of one of the carved rock churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

WK: Ethiopia gives the world all the religion that the world posseses. The three main religions: Christianity, Judaism and the Muslim faith, all of those religions came out of Ethiopia. So the foundation of the faith, where these religions started was Ethiopia, Africa. That is one of the reasons for highlighting the church. The church that is carved out of rock is a mystery to this day, like the pyramids.

EM: Having been to Ethiopia, I was made aware that the Ethiopian people are very nervous about the Rastafari, because they are very nervous about the use of marijuana.

WK: But not every Rastafarian use marijuana. Smoking marijuana does not make a Rasta. It’s not a rule or a regulation or a law because we have nuff Rastafarian bredren and sistren who do not smoke, who are firm in the faith, who have never smoked from the day they are born.

EM: I think that that is a misconception that many people have—that all Rastas smoke.

WK: The use of herb is a personal thing. It’s for meditation. The herb is not a fashion and style thing, it’s a sacrament for I and I still. In reality, a lot of youths smoke marijuana because they see Bob Marley smoke it in a lot of pictures or they see a lot of Rastafarians smoking herb but me wan fi tell them say: “If you smoke the herb then you have to smoke the herb and think positive.” But don’t smoke the herb or over use it because herb is not something you should abuse, because anything you abuse can be dangerous to your health. If you drink too much water, if you sleep too much, if you have too much sex, if you eat too much, everything that you overdo can be dangerous to you. But there is a balance in everything, you have to reach it.