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September 12, 2005

Television's September 11th

Not that I'm complaining, but did anyone else wonder last night whether the "viewer discretion is advised" proviso was enough cover for Stewie Griffin's futile attempt at a game of marco polo with Helen Keller? Does anyone else wonder how funny last night's Family Guy episode would have seemed had it not been preceded by Fox's latest, greatest train-wreck of a situation comedy? Seriously, The War at Home, which Fox debuted between the Simpsons' all-but-unwatchable 17th season premiere and the typically fabulous Family Guy episode, definitely ranks among the most wretched half-hours of television I have ever seen.

Dave, played with appropriate disinterest by Michael Rapaport, thinks his eldest son Larry is gay because… huh. I don't actually remember why. But Dave's not happy about it, and he admonishes Larry and his friend — who's actually gay, we learn in a un-refreshingly unoriginal jump-cut sequence — to "watch TV with the door open". His daughter Hillary is dating a straight-A student named Tay, and Dave's not happy about that either. Because he doesn't like black people. Hiyo! It turns out that Dave's wife Vicky once slept with Tay's father, which leads Dave to ask Vicky if it's "really true about black guys." "Some yes and some no," she says, which sends Dave into apoplexy: "How many? A couple? A few? Are we talking the million man march here?" Through all this runs a cracked-out, high-volume laugh track that serves only to underline just how unfunny this loser is. And yet I watched every second of it; I could not look away.

It's fascinating that The War at Home came from the same boardroom as the Family Guy (to say nothing of Arrested Development, which is niche humour if ever I've seen it). Family Guy is deliberately, hilariously offensive — I have no idea how they get away with it — but the War at Home is far more offensive, and not just because Dave is a bigot and a horrible father. (Bigotry can be funny, or could be once upon a time; cruel, disinterested parenting, not so much.) My biggest problem with this show — as with the inexplicably long-lived Malcolm in the Middle — is that none of the characters seem to care about each other. Indeed, the person I was watching it with commented that none of them seemed even to have known each other before cameras were thrust into their faces. Look, I'll laugh at bitter, mean-spirited people if they do or say something funny, but I'm not going to double over simply because they're bitter and mean-spirited and Michael Rapaport said "fuck" and it was bleeped out.

I took delivery last week of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's magnificent Freaks and Geeks DVD set. It still ranks as #685 on Amazon's DVD bestseller list 16 months after it was released. Apatow's Undeclared is also moving units. Family Guy must have sold a billion DVDs by now. That's three great shows cut down in their infancies (and one resurrected, which is a relatively easy procedure for an animated show), shuffled from timeslot to timeslot in the absurd ballet of network television programming until the execs simply couldn't justify moving them anywhere else. "Jeez, guys," you can just hear them saying, "look at these ratings."

All over North America there are smart people with great ideas to pitch — great, money-making ideas. The networks are reaping the benefits of these DVD sales, after all, and they're hampered by only having one season of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to sell. At some point or another, will it finally dawn on them that there's at least as much money to be made from quality as there is from crap? The music industry might slowly be coming around, having watched various indie phenomena rocket up the charts. (Did anyone else notice The Arcade Fire leading into commercials on an NFL the US Open final broadcast last night?) Fox could be releasing Undeclared's junior year on DVD tomorrow. Instead they continue to drain more water out of the shallowest pool in the entertainment industry.

Posted by Chris Selley at September 12, 2005 06:17 PM

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I caught an Arcade Fire lead-in to commercial during the US Open finals broadcast. It seems strange to me that it would make it into an NFL broadcast, as NFL and CBS seem to prefer their stock NFL themes. Which game was it?

Posted by: jono at September 12, 2005 07:26 PM

I of course meant to say that *FOX* and CBS have their in-house themes that they use.

Posted by: jono at September 12, 2005 07:28 PM

Tennis! That's what it was. My bad, jono, and that would explain why I couldn't remember what game it was. Appreciate the correction.

Posted by: Chris Selley at September 12, 2005 07:58 PM

Same on this end. I've begun to see indie-lodestars insinuate themselves into the most commercial of enterprises -- but that seems somewhat inevitable, doesn’t it? Without The O.C how many more people come around to hearing Transatlanticism? And, naturally, media-types are now realizing there's far more blood in this stone. My fear -- snobbery, really -- is that accessibility is very much tantamount to saturation, which likely augurs irrelevance. This has to do with an absurd, culturally based, status anxiety. The fear that the High or the Middle is being degraded by the low, the hoi polloi.

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