Home Box Office again has thwarted my resolution to yank out the cable box and save a lot of money, by mounting yet another drama I need to see every minute of.
I was raised on network television and I sort of miss it. The holy trinity was ABC, CBS and NBC, and I absolutely bought into the spurious notion that these philanthropic enterprises desired nothing more than to bring great entertainment into my home for free. Okay, maybe some of that entertainment wasn’t so great, but for every variation on Perry Mason, there might be one The Prisoner, and all the banalities Paul Henning foisted off as comedy could be negated by a sitcom as unique as NewsRadio.
Nowadays Must See TV is Musty TV. Networks, hoping to hold onto what’s left of the masses, have become content to repurpose the same premises that worked for them twenty years ago. (Case in point: NBC, desperate to reclaim prime time after the Jay Leno experiment backfired, has had to fall back for next season on Law and Order: Los Angeles. What next? Law and Order: Abandoned Storage Unit?)
Cable television, belittled by the networks in its infancy, kicks up all the dust the networks are currently eating. Unbound by FCC broadcast restrictions, cable has parlayed every naughty word and burnished ta-ta the nets were unable to show into a line item in 84% of American households’ budgets. Proving who’s on top was the news this week that Conan is coming to cable.
Pundits were certain that the deposed king of late night would begin the crusade for the return of his kingdom on Fox. As late as Sunday night, the Interneterati were urging Rupert Murdoch to pull the trigger on a Conan deal.
Behind the scenes, though, we are told that Fox couldn’t find a way to get the stations it owns and operates out of their long-term deals to re-run sitcoms in the very timeslot Conan would need to take on Jay and Dave. Into that vacuum swooped TBS, a basic cable channel that’s done pretty well with re-run sitcoms in its time.
All TBS had to do was tell Conan they’d start him a half-hour before Jay and Dave, 10 p.m. our time, while the nets are stuck waiting on local news. Well, that and also pay him $10 million a year.
Conan’s victory speech was predictably choice: “In three months I’ve gone from net TV to Twitter to performing live...and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”
Meanwhile, above the fray in the digital tier, HBO does the dramas networks can no longer afford to do, and I’m not kidding about Treme. There are two reasons initially to tout it. One, folks around the country will finally know how to pronounce the district (it’s tree-MAY), and, two, Treme marks the return of David Simon to television.
Nope, not a household name, but he’s been a writer and producer for extraordinary series such as Homicide: Life on the Street, Generation Kill and, most ‘scociously, The Wire, which many critics feel beats The Sopranos as HBO’s best drama ever.
What The Wire did to shine a light on the dingy streets of Baltimore, Treme does for the shattered streets of New Orleans. Set three months post-Katrina, the first episode cranked off with a second-line parade by the Rebirth Brass Band and soon, just as at a neighborhood party, you met the characters comprising a taut ensemble: Wendell Pierce as hustling trombonist Antoine Batiste, Khandi Alexander as Ladonna Williams, his bar-owning ex-wife; Steve Zahn as Davis, part-time announcer on WWOZ; Kim Dickens as his girlfriend, Janette, a neighborhood chef; John Goodman as Professor Bernette, passionate defender of his hometown; Melissa Leo as his wife, Toni, a crusading lawyer on the trail of the hurricane’s disparecidos; and looming above them all, Clark Peters as Albert Lambreaux, a proud Mardi Gras Indian “looking for a heart of steel.” This is some TV gris-gris, y’all.
The real star of the show is the music of New Orleans, foreground, background and battleground. As it gives the city its identity, it gives the narrative specificity, and that leads me back to Record Store Day, this Saturday, a chance to celebrate our own musical community.
Initiated as a crass promotion by the likes of Birmingham’s own Don Van Cleave, Record Store Day has become an international celebration of music as lifestyle, focusing on the neighborhood shops where so many lifelong music connections have been made.
Starting with Lawrence Hi-Fi and Rumore’s Record Rack when I was a kid, moving down to Tuscaloosa with The Dickery and Newsom’s Music Center, back to Birmingham for Odyssey and Oz, Laser’s Edge and Magic Platter, and now, as Charlemagne and Renaissance today divide the music world between them in Five Points, record stores have always been a vibrant source of pop culture energy.
Part of the magic is phonograph records themselves. An iPod is portable and a compact disc pristine, but an album is an art object. This is music you can heft, with two sides to spin, a big cover to eyeball and, if you’re lucky, lyrics inside, in a font big enough to read without microscopy.
Sure, it will never sound as good again as the first time you played it, for each time the needle plows through the groove, a little more of a record’s sonic fidelity vanishes. The more technology supplants it, the closer it edges to obsolescence, but haven’t we all been feeling a little like that?
Let us vaunt anachronism Saturday and laud Treme Sunday. Music plus people equals life.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.