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Culture TV

Me and Mister Rogers

Neighborhood watch

As a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had reasons to like the star; I was a quiet, gentle kid from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Fred Rogers was a quiet, gentle man from the same area. More importantly, I had precious few male role models in my family life, and Rogers modeled a warm-hearted, happy, self-assured masculinity that didn’t rely on mustering bravado or projecting toughness. Instead, he expressed his feelings, smiled and laughed, and freely shared his vulnerabilities. That gave me hope, as an insecure kid.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the show. Mister Rogers was geared for the five-and-under crowd, and I moved on to other series: Square One, Carmen Sandiego, Batman: the Animated Series.

Still, I retained an affection for Mister Rogers, and I would check in on his show from time to time, even as a teenager. It was reassuring to see his program continue, largely unchanged. Oh, his hair was whiter and his posture more stooped, but he was that same happy neighbor, beaming as he stepped into that familiar, dingy little sound stage.

The trolley, but bigger

My reentry into Fred Rogers’ orbit came from an unexpected angle: a summer job.

In spring of 1999, as my high school graduation neared, I needed to earn cash for college, but I dreaded the thought of another summer spent mowing lawns or slinging quarter pounders at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I had another option: the family-friendly amusement park near my house.

At the brief screening interview, I expressed interest in a “character” role—a park job that that involved performing a script, rather than pushing a sequence of buttons. I secretly hoped to land a job leading tours at the Wild West illusion house, where I’d get to create an over-the-top, old-timey character. (More importantly, I’d spend the summer working with my then-girlfriend, who was returning to that same role.)

To my dismay, there were no open positions at the illusion house. Instead, I was offered a job as the only male trolley driver on the park’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe” ride.

Yes, this was a real thing. The thirteen-minute experience piled thirty park guests into a life-size replica of the trolley from Mister Rogers’ show. This electric train trundled through a plywood tunnel and emerged into a humid, sun-dappled patch of forest. The track wound its way through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, stopping at King Friday’s castle, the tree house of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchild’s Museum-Go-Round, and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock house.

My job was to “drive” the trolley through the Neighborhood and encourage passengers to engage with its animatronic residents. As our trolley neared, each character would emerge from its set and “talk” (i.e., play back a recording of Fred Rogers himself, in character). Pauses in their delivery were my cue to recite a well-memorized script.

The plot wasn’t exactly Shakespearean; at the first station, King Friday commanded us to invite every character we met to attend an imminent “Hug and Song” party. At each stop along the way, I would dutifully lead the passengers in the prescribed mantra: “Come along, come along, to the castle Hug and Song.”

I spent two full summers driving the trolley, and this routine grew very familiar.

For example, by my calculations, I recited that “Hug and Song” line tens of thousands of time. By the end of my second season, I could have performed the script in my sleep and knew precisely where there was room for improvisation.

By sheer repetition, I had also mastered the skill of trolley-driving: I could stop the massive train on a dime and could tell by feel when the tracks had been recently greased. I knew exactly how each scene was likely to malfunction, too: the Merry-Go-Round would fail to spin open, leaving Lady Elaine to squawk at us from inside. X the Owl’s door would get stuck. Daniel Tiger, true to his shy reputation, would stay hidden away inside his clock. I had even invented ways of explaining away these problems, satisfying curious kids and amusing parents with a knowing wink.

It was a good job, as park jobs go, and it kept me entertained far better than working the carousel or the roller coaster ever could have. Still, the work eventually grew tiresome, and as my second summer drew to a close, I was eager to disembark the trolley—permanently.

Meeting the man himself

There was one perk of trolley-driving I haven’t yet mentioned: we were treated to visits from the show’s stars. For example, more than once, Mr. McFeely (the Neighborhood mailman) dropped by. All fine and good, but that paled in comparison to the time that Mr. Rogers himself visited.

We spent the better part of a week sprucing up the ride for Rogers’ arrival. We swept and re-swept the loading deck, scrubbed down the trolleys, and washed the scene platforms along the track. Park maintenance repaired animatronic malfunctions that hadn’t worked properly for ages. Everything was well-oiled, crisp, and shiny when an elderly Mr. Rogers showed up, slim and hunched but not particularly frail.

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers himself that others haven’t written more eloquently. But it’s true what they say: his real-life personality was very similar to the one he projected for the TV audience. I remember that he smiled a lot and that he seemed genuinely interested in each of us college kids working the ride.

We lined up for photos (I still have that snapshot, somewhere) and accompanied Mr. Rogers to a nearby pavilion, where we shared a picnic lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a wonderful way to bookend my summer—and my twenty-year relationship with Mr. Rogers as his “television neighbor.”

Last thoughts

A few years later, I was heartbroken to learn that Fred Rogers had passed away. He had kept his stomach cancer a secret from the public and died soon after his diagnosis, at the age of 74.

Reading through his obituaries, I was astonished to learn that Rogers and I had shared a birthday. That’s a coincidence, of course. But it felt significant to me—one more thread linking me to a remarkable man. ■

Categories
movies TV

Never unintentional: my brain on linear TV vs. Netflix

We typically spend the late-year holidays visiting my in-law’s home in Pennsylvania. It’s a welcome downshift from our usual, frantic pace. On many of these visits, I’ve watched more traditional, linear-programmed cable TV in one long weekend than I have in the rest of the year combined.

There’s a warm, zombified state that settles in after so watching many Property Brothers episodes. My body falls into sleepy hibernation, lying motionless on the couch for hours on end. My metabolism enters ‘slow burn’ mode, expecting a steady stream of pumpkin pie and sugar cookies. And my brain quiets, barely registering when one hour of bad TV bleeds into the next. The day rolls by.

However, in more recent holiday seasons, these cable TV binges have grown less frequent, for at least two reasons. First, we have a daughter now, and she prefers that her parents be play partners, rather than comatose couch potatoes.

Another reason I don’t binge on cable quite as often? The internet has fundamentally changed my relationship to content, and it’s hard to go back. I’ve grown accustomed to programming my own playlists, and I’ve grown resistant to “choice-less” consumption.

This change isn’t just about Netflix versus cable. Terrestrial radio’s bland playlists and brash commercials also turn me off; give me my podcasts instead. The satellite TV feeds offered on my recent cross-country flights didn’t tempt me in the slightest. I turned to my phone instead, which was chock-full of favorite vlogs, TV series, and movies. Even magazines bore me; why read fluffed-up filler, when I can hand-pick the best of the web?

There’s a huge difference in mindset for these two consumption methods. One, the traditional model, makes me passive and powerless. Someone else steers the ship, and I get sucked into its current. Linear TV puts me at the mercy of the least common denominator; I unintentionally wind up watching formulaic, overproduced reality TV.

In contrast, the internet makes content consumption more purposeful. I watch shows that I actually want to watch. I gravitate to shows with great writing and production values: content that delights me, thrills me, or makes me think. And when a show is bad? I’m just engaged enough that I don’t keep watching mindlessly. Instead I’ll switch and watch watch something else. Or I’ll turn off the gadgets and (gasp!) actually head outside.

(I still bring along the cookies.) ■

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apple TV

Thoughts on Apple’s fired engineer

Apple has fired a radio frequency engineer who allowed his daughter (vlogger Brooke Peterson) to record a prerelease iPhone X, then post the result to YouTube. The offending video has since been pulled (at Apple’s request), but it’s not difficult to find it online.

A few random thoughts:

  • First, let me say up front that I’m sorry that this happened. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for Peterson and her family to deal with the aftermath of this episode, particularly since it all happened in such a public-facing way.
  • Turning to the offending video itself (and on a lighter note), those inside Apple are struggling with the flagship phone’s name, too. Just before the 3:00 mark, the engineer calls it the “iPhone Ex” (i.e., not the “iPhone Ten”).
  • The Caffè Macs pizza looks delicious.
  • Halfway through the video, the engineer reveals that his team is scheduled to move into Apple Park (the company’s spaceship-like new headquarters) in December. I wonder whether he was authorized to announce this, given the level of public interest in the campus. If not, that revelation may have factored into his dismissal, as well.
  • The Petersons unknowingly mirrored Apple’s actual prerelease marketing strategy for the iPhone X: invite little-known YouTuber to Apple’s home turf, give them an exclusive hands-on with the iPhone X, and invite them to publish their thoughts ahead of major press outlets. One blogger even argues that Peterson’s video is more interesting than the officially-sanctioned takes.
  • You would think that the engineer’s internal alarm would have gone off the instant his daughter whipped out her dSLR on campus. Apple’s commitment to secrecy is infamous at this point, and in the past few years, the company has clamped down even harder on employee leaks. It would be difficult for Apple leadership to overlook the (very public) violation without undermining their authority inside the company. So why didn’t the engineer stop her—either mid-recording or before she uploaded?
  • Brooke Peterson has since posted her reflections on the incident. She claims that she was shocked that her “little, innocent video” garnered so much attention, when there were so many other hands-ons already posted online. It’s true that Peterson’s video didn’t reveal much about the iPhone X that we didn’t already know. But at the time it hit YouTube, precious few recordings of the X “in the wild” had leaked—and none of them came from inside Apple. It’s not surprising that this content went viral.

In Peterson’s defense, I doubt that she aimed to sacrifice her dad’s job to boost her YouTube subscriber count. But, whether intentionally or not, that’s what happened. Before her iPhone X hands-on, Peterson had just 87 subscribers; now, barely a week later, she has over 12,000.

That’s a solid base on which to build an internet personality brand, if Peterson goes that direction. At the very least, she plans to continue posting Youtube videos; as she states in her follow-up, “I’ll see you guys at my next vlog.” ■

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apple TV

Does ‘Planet of the Apps’ mean that Apple is bad at producing TV?

On a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber argued that Apple’s potential as a TV content producer shouldn’t be judged by its first two (underwhelming) efforts, Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke. “What was Netflix’s first show?” he asked, “No one fucking remembers, right?”

On the one hand, citing Netflix undermines Gruber’s argument. Netflix’s first original series was House of Cards, whose excellent first season premiered to universal acclaim. Weighed against that show, Planet of the Apps comes up wanting. Apple’s reality show debut hasn’t attracted enough critical attention to be scored by Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but those reviewers who bothered to weigh in panned the show.

On the other hand, there is precedent for a streaming service achieving success after mediocre first efforts at original content. Hulu’s first few web-only shows generated hardly a ripple of interest. But The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian drama from Hulu that debuted earlier this year, just won the Emmy for best drama series—the first and only streaming series to win that honor.

Presumably, Apple’s hoping to follow in Hulu’s footsteps. First, produce a few low-budget, under-the-radar web series. Then, once you’ve debugged the content production assembly line, hire more proven talent and pump in the cash. Time will tell whether Planet of the Apps has primed the pump for Apple’s future television success.


For comparison’s sake, here are the Metacritic scores for several streaming services’ first original series:

Company First original streaming series Premiere First season Metacritic rating
Hulu If I Can Dream March 2010 N/A
Netflix House of Cards February 2013 76
Amazon Betas April 2013 69
CBS All Access The Good Fight February 2017 80
Apple Planet of the Apps June 2017 N/A

Categories
internet TV

Letterman’s moving to Netflix. Who’s next?

From a Netflix press release:

“David Letterman, the longest-serving host in U.S. late night television – the original host of Late Night (NBC) and The Late Show (CBS) – is returning to television for a new series for Netflix.

The yet-to-be-named, six-episode series has Letterman combining two interests for which he is renowned: in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor.”

This makes sense. Letterman has occasionally expressed admiration for Jerry Seinfeld’s highly successful web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which recently announced its own transition to Netflix).

Conan should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010.

So… comedians are leading the Internet TV charge. One other star I’d like to see join the fray? Conan O’Brien, who should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010. Instead, he transplanted his network show to basic cable, where he continues to rehearse the tired late-night talk show model. But his absurd, amazing remote bits would work well as a standalone short-form web series. ■

Categories
TV

Seinfeld’s Superbowl Sketch

Last week, rumors of a pending Seinfeld reunion sent fans of the hit 1990s sitcom into a frenzy. What, exactly, were Jerry and Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) filming on the streets of New York—in costume? When asked about it, Seinfeld played coy.

The results were revealed last night during the (otherwise less-than-riveting) Superbowl. The Seinfeld alums had worked their 90s characters into a mini-episode of Seinfeld’s brilliant web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”:

The spot has its moments. For one, you’ve got to love the car choice; Jerry ferries George around New York in a 1976 AMC Pacer. As Seinfeld snarks, “It doesn’t work; it looks ridiculous; and [it] falls apart—which makes it the perfect vehicle for my guest today: Mr. George Costanza.” Another pleasant surprise? Wayne Knight cameos as Jerry’s arch-nemesis, Newman. His wheezy cackle still makes me giggle.

But this mini-reunion has its problems, too. First, it’s too short. As a series, Seinfeld specialized in comedic payoffs. It took its time, establishing the plot threads, then entangling them hilariously at each episode’s climax. The Superbowl segment doesn’t have space to work this way. The closest we get to a “payoff” is the lame recurrence of a mumble gag established just two minutes earlier.

Another problem with the bit? George Costanza. Oh, he’s still the same neurotic kvetch. Actually, that’s the problem: George hasn’t changed at all. He sports the same wire-rimmed glasses, the same frumpy red jacket—even the same-colored hair (likely dyed). But the self-obsession that made George funny back then makes him unpleasant now. He’s less “charmingly crabby” and more “crotchety crank.” If anything, George seems more cynical and selfish than his younger self. Only now, it’s harder to overlook.

Listen: I’m not ungrateful; I’m glad Seinfeld & Friends shot this piece. We got a whimsical, nostalgic reminder of TV’s best-ever sitcom.

But the brief reunion shows why Seinfeld should never be renewed. Sure, society has generated plenty of script material in the intervening years. No doubt Jerry and the gang would have plenty to say about today’s “excruciating minutiae”: smartphone etiquette, Skype faux-paus, Netflix binges, and “reality” TV.

But would audiences want to hear them complain? The quirks that made these characters funny as thirty-somethings would make them unbearable as fifty-year-olds. Kramer’s wacky antics as a young man were lovably eccentric; they’d seem borderline creepy for a senior citizen. Elaine’s sarcastic narcissism was cute back then; from a middle-aged woman, it would likely grate.

As it turns out, the show’s original finale got it right: it’s probably for the best that these characters were “removed from society.”

Categories
movies TV

Sell-out

If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.


  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.  
Categories
movies TV

Trek envy

J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot focused on the franchise’s original characters: Kirk. Spock. McCoy. Scotty.

It must feel unfair to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, in terms of sheer screen time, they’ve got the original cast beat. We have many more hours of Trek with Picard at the helm than with Kirk. Yet no one’s seriously considering a TNG reboot. And even hard-core fans would squirm if Abrams tried to shoehorn Troi or Geordi into the alternative timeline established by the new movies.

That hasn’t stopped the actors from trying. Every so often, Brent Spiner or Jonathan Frakes shameless pitch themselves for the next Abrams flick. “Of course they could bring me back!” they protest, “It’s Star Trek, for God’s sake! A malfunctioning transporter! A clone experiment gone wrong! Time travel! You fans should write letters demanding my character’s return!”

This sort of self-promotion irks me, for several reasons. First, it reeks of desperation. Open groveling breaks my heart. Second, it proves how little these actors understand storytelling. Fan service does not a good plot make. Finally, such role-grubbing seems ungrateful. Where’s the respect for the fictional universe that brought them international fame and commercial success?

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t be grateful. Trek has a way of hijacking actors’ careers. Once you’re typecast as the childlike android or the chair-challenged commander, it’s tough to earn a non-Trek gig.[1] You’re doomed to attend an endless series of nerdy conventions, answering the same questions again and again. There’s only so many times you can wax eloquent about Wesley’s sweaters or Riker’s beard before you go mad.

It’s no wonder that the TNGers hunger for a more mainstream spotlight.


  1. The only notable exception is Patrick Stewart, whose British theater connections (and sheer awesomeness) kept his career from going Picard-centric.  ↩
Categories
internet movies TV

Netflix, our hero!

The telcos are doubly damned.

On the one hand, American telecommunications companies continue to hold back TV’s natural evolution. Television service hasn’t improved for decades. To watch your favorite programs, you still have to buy overpriced packages of channels you hate. Even now, when pervasive broadband invites infinite distribution alternatives, the telcos ruthlessly stymie innovation and strong-arm content providers into antiquated deals.[1]

On the other hand, the telcos seem intent on breaking the Internet. Verizon recently won a court case against the FCC, invalidating rules that prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic. Net neutrality—so key to free speech and healthy competition—is now on death watch. And because telcos own local monopolies in so many markets, Americans may have no choice but to accept it. We’ll pay whatever the ISP demands, accept whatever speeds are available, and put up with whatever crippled version of the Internet they deign to offer.

One company is uniquely impacted by both telco sins. Netflix, the one-time DVD-by-mail startup and current king of streaming video, has a stake in both TV’s evolution and net neutrality.

On the one hand, Netflix represents the future of television. Watch what you want, when you want it, at one low price. Give your customer a simple, intuitive interface, available on any device, anywhere in the world. Just compare Netflix’s clean design to your cable box’s tangled, unresponsive, janky mess of a menu.

Of course, Netflix depends on content providers who sit under the telcos’ thumb. At any time, the streaming service could lose its content deals, leaving behind a wasteland of straight-to-DVD movies and outdated TV shows.

That’s why it’s so important that Netflix develop its own content. House of CardsOrange is the New Black, and Arrested Development aren’t just fun side-projects. They represent Netflix’s future and the future of TV. Let the telcos lock down traditional programming. It won’t matter, if you produce original shows that the viewers adore.

Netflix also stands to be victimized by the second ISP sin: hobbling the Internet. Netflix currently accounts for a huge chunk of U.S. Internet traffic. If the telcos target anyone for “traffic shaping,” they’ll target Netflix. Imagine a world where Verizon slows Netflix to a crawl (“Buffering… buffering…”), but lets its own streaming service scream through the pipes.

That’s why Netflix has already taken a preemptive, offensive stance against traffic shaping. Soon after the FCC lost its net neutrality case against Verizon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted a strongly-worded letter to investors. He vowed to fight any attempt by the ISPs to slow down Internet video. In response, Hastings warned, Netflix would “vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet.” Want to see someone get angry? Interrupt their Breaking Badbinge.


American telcos own the infrastructure that links us to the wider Internet. But they don’t own the Internet itself. They can’t hold back new TV business models forever. They can’t escape the fact that their customers just want a big, fat, wide-open connection to the wider network. Hopefully, the telcos accept their “dumb pipe” destiny quietly. But if they can’t (or won’t), let’s hope that Netflix flexes its muscles.


  1. And even when the content companies do stream online, they often require a cable or satellite subscription. In other words, they’re scared of losing their lucrative telco contracts.  ↩