Friday, February 26, 2010

On leaving a loved one. Goodbye, TiVo.

This past week, I FINALLY made the transition to HD television. Oh, for a long while, I've had a TV capable of the appropriate resolution, and enjoyed the pristine picture with DVDs and BluRays. But I always held out making the switch for "regular" programming because I was brand loyal (to a fault?) with both DirecTV and TiVo.

I love DirecTV, and for me, their service, performance and customer support has been second to none. (Hell, I may even wind up moving because of it, but that's another story for another day). For years, I've had the DirecTV receiver with integrated TiVo (and before that, I had seperate TiVo boxes). When I was at someone else's house, or during a hellish 5 month relo situation where I was tortured with the TV gang rape of Comcast, I experienced other DVRs, and found them all to be lacking when it comes to the functionality and friendliness of good old TiVo. But this fall, a few chinks in the armor began to show:
  • My own units, older and surely worn out from the sheer volume of use, started to have small glitches, freezing up or requiring a reboot. (Good soldiers that they were, if they were functioning, they never missed an appointed round).
  • A DirecTV HD receiver with TiVo brand DVR has long been rumored, but thus far, it has remained as elusive as unicorns, Santa or Tiger Woods' integrity.
  • During a delightful trip back to the motherlands of Georgia, I stayed with two groups of friends who both had the DirecTV HD DVR hookup. I looked down my nose at first -- this is no TiVo! -- but after playing with them for a while (and being stunned at the picture quality, of course), they didn't seem so "foreign" and unwelcoming.
  • I spoke with the fine folks at DirecTV about the possibility of upgrading, just out of curiosity, and they agreed to give me the whole HD and DVR hookup at a price that can't be beat.
So this week, I pulled the trigger. (Just in time to read 108 tiny names written on a lighthouse mirror wheel on Lost!) Obviously, I can see a HUGE difference in the HD picture. That goes without saying. But what I wanted to briefly ruminate on is a comparison between the DVRs. I thought I would be completely aggravated without the comfort and familiarity of the TiVo interface, but I have to say, just a few days later, I'm really at peace with the decision. Here are a few initial observations:

Things That Work with Both:
  • The ability to customize the onscreen program guide. When you have a channel selection that reaches into the hundreds, there are obviously channels that you're never, ever going to watch. I don't want to see them cluttering up my screen when I scroll through the guide. It was just as easy with the new DVR to create a "ShanTV Guide" that completely eliminated all shopping channels, all religious cult programming, all kids and parenting channels and anything having to do with cooking, health, hockey, soccer and "reality" shows.
  • Watching and pausing two channels at once. This was a great TiVo exclusive feature for a long time. Most DVRs allow you watch one channel and record another, but what I liked about TiVo is that you could actively watch and pause two programs on different channels at the same time, flipping between them. (For example, you can watch a game on one and pause when it goes to commercial, then switch to the other channel and catch a flick. After a few minutes, you pause the movie, then flip back to the game, FF to the start of action and catch up, and continue ad infinitum). Up until recently, the DirecTV DVR didn't allow this, but now they have the DoublePlay feature, which makes it possible. (You have to push one button to "activate" it, but it works just the same). This is a big feature for couch potatoes.
  • Season passes work the same with both DVRs (but DirecTV's actually has some more user friendly features to set them up, noted below).
  • You can send programs to record to both from the web or your crackberry.
  • Searches are similarly easy and functional. (Though the DirecTV DVR is more of a "one stop shop," allowing you search for actors, shows, keywords and everything else all in one place).
  • Both have the typical play, FF, RW, pause, quick 6 second backup and 30 second skip (which was a "Select/Play/Select/3-0/Select" hack on the TiVo). One thing I just discovered today was how to dismiss the "progress bar" during a pause on the new unit. I twittered about this earlier in the week, and also googled, but couldn't find the answer. On the TiVo, if you pause the picture, the progress bar goes away quickly. On this new DVR, the progress bar stayed in place for 60 seconds. This function is useful if you're watching Lost and trying to make out names written on a cave wall, but don't want it obscured by a graphic progress bar on the bottom for a full minute. However, if you pause the DirecTV DVR, and then hit the "exit" button, the screen remains paused and the bar goes away. Yeah!

Things TiVo Does Better:
  • Yeah, it has a personality. The name is more fun to say. Who doesn't love the little TV with antennae?
  • The 30 second skip is a SKIP. It just goes 30 seconds ahead, no FF images shown. You're there.
  • I like the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down." This really only comes into play if you like TiVo to record suggestions for you (which the DirecTV unit doesn't do on its own). I didn't use this much on my main TV, but in the bedroom, I found it useful for finding programs that I might like to fall asleep to, that I didn't have to be particularly invested in (or that I'd seen before and liked). Of course, I still had the residue of a previous relationship residing on the TiVo hard drive, as my suggestions kept recording African-American sitcoms, hip-hop shows, "reality" excretions and kid-friendly family programming (don't ask). Eventually, the box (the electronic one) learned that I prefer geek oriented programming with ghosts, vampires and spaceships. Plus, it just felt good to give a big red-buttoned "thumbs down" to Pat Robertson or The Hills, like I was a Roman emperor sending brain-insulting shows to their gruesome deaths in the arena.
  • Everything moves FASTER. The onscreen response to button pushing is marginally quicker with the TiVo, with the exception of the program guide (where DirecTV's is more responsive).
  • I originally thought there would be more items on this list, hence my reluctance to make the switch despite the upgrade in picture quality, but to my surprise, there just aren't.
  • Slow mo is much easier to engage.
Things The DirecTV DVR Does Better:
  • More control with the remote. Much of the functionality is the same, but there are more options, and more shortcuts, for getting where you need to go and doing what you need to do, with this remote. (For example, hit a "color button" and automatically jump the guide ahead 12 hours. Hit a "color button" and bring up the closed captioning, or even DirecTV's own, and better formatted, captioning. You can also set up 9 quick tune channels that can be accessed with one or two button pushes. There are a lot of shortcuts like this).
  • Searches are easier and more multifaceted. There's a "smart search" feature that takes place on one screen, and sorts out the options for you (actor, keyword, title, etc.).
  • Recording is easier. Sure, just like TiVo, you can push one button to record. However, with this unit, you can push the "record" button once on ANY screen (live TV, guide, search, etc.) and record the program, and push it twice to automatically set up a season pass to that program. Additionally, and this is a significant advantage, you can set up the "default" settings for season pass recording. Meaning that all season passes you set to record (traditionally, or via the two touch method) can be customized to "First Run, Keep Until I Delete, Keep All Episodes." When you're setting up 50+ new season passes, this is a HUGE time saver.
  • Gives you a number, and bar chart, of the space used for kept, recorded programs. (94% free!).
  • This is probably my absolute favorite feature of the DirecTV version: it doesn't matter what screen you're on (guide, menu, season pass, set up, etc.), you always have a small box in the upper right corner showing a viewable program. (live TV OR the recorded show you're currently watching). With TiVo, when you went into any menu functions, you couldn't see what you're watching).
  • On Demand features. The whole On Demand thing, which requires an internet hookup, is just amazing. Not only can you order movies and sporting events on PPV (just like you could with TiVo), but you can also access endless libraries of stored programming that you can download to your box. For example, earlier this week, I watch the entirety of Friday Night Lights season 4 in HD over a couple of nights just by downloading them and watching them. I also caught up on a few shows (like Burn Notice, and Secret Diary of a Call Girl) that I had stored on my TiVo, but hadn't gotten around to watching yet before the transition, via On Demand. This is an awesome fucking service. Plus, there's plenty of free movies you can access at any time.
  • No phone line required. Technically, you could use the old TiVo boxes without a phone hookup, but if you didn't get the regular service updates, you got annoying messages onscreen, and the initial startup of the primary menu could take a few minutes (which is forever in TV time). I use my crackberry for everything, and was basically paying for a hardline just for the goddamned TiVo convenience, so i canceled that service and wound up saving a few dollars almost immediately.
  • Higher contrast onscreen graphics. Much more pleasing aesthetically, and much easier to read when you're in bed without your glasses.
I could go on, but I think you get the gist. There was a time when I swore the only way you'd get my TiVo remote was to pry it out of my cold, dead hand. But after a little vacation sampling, and hesitant dive into the deep end, I'm completely sold on the DirecTV DVR as a worthy (and dare I say more capable) successor to my beloved original.

What say you? Anyone else made the switch? Or is it possible that I have no life other than in front of the idiot box and have thought about this waaaaay too much?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

TV "Style Conventions" I Love

Beyond the characters, the writing, the plotting, the direction and the acting, there are many reasons why you might love a television show. Little stylistic choices, or "conventions" if you will, that help establish the mood and tenor of a program. For example, the ticking clock (both visually and aurally) on 24. Episodes titles for Friends that are always "The One With...." The "chung chung" sound on Law & Order.

Here are a few from current shows that I love:

The character-identifying chyron titles on Burn Notice, where the text flies in and freeze frames someone as "Michael's Worst Nightmare" or "Arms Dealer with a Grudge."

The 3D floating location identifiers on Fringe.

When the crew on Leverage pulls a con, toward the end of the episode, we usually get a quick black and white flashback to show how they did it.

The different sounds used to indicate a flashback, flashforward or flashsideways on Lost.

The "to the camera" confessionals on The Office and Parks & Recreation.

The choral "soundtrack" and musical stingers on Glee.

The faux Veridian Dynamics commercials that usually run during an episode of Better Off Ted.

The way the credits to The Closer typically unfold, with a full opening scene playing out, interspersed with stark text on black background credits, all underscored with a bluesy guitar.

The episode naming conventions for The Big Bang Theory and Community, which suggest (respectively) scientific theorems ("The Lizard-Spock Expansion") or college classes ("Comparative Religion").

Belle's in character (but out of story) asides to the camera/audience in Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

The "fake FBI Agent" names (usually classic rock inspired) the Winchester brothers always give in Supernatural ("Agent Plant and Agent Page").

The beautifully done depiction of Zoe Graystone, the "personality" trapped inside the Cylon robot, in Caprica, which cuts back and forth from the CGI'd gleaming metal monstrosity to actress Alessandra Torresani.

What about you? What conventions or stylistic quirks from your favorite shows make you love them that much more?

Friday, February 19, 2010

So...I finally saw Avatar

Given the worldwide box office, I may very well be the last person on Earth (or Pandora) to have seen Avatar. By now, I'm sure you've seen it (and decided if you want to want to paint yourself blue and hug your hometree or just hope that preening egoist James Cameron heads back to the bottom of the sea to find that damned necklace) and read just about all you want to read about, so I'll keep this brief.

What I liked:
  • Oh, believe the hype about the visuals. Avatar is a damned impressive spectacle, and every single detail is beautifully realized. The Na'vi don't necessarily cross the "uncanny valley" (and neither did Gollum or King Kong), but things looked real and had substance and weight. The flying sequences alone (on dragon like creatures) are worth the price of admission.
  • James Cameron knows his tech. Or at least, how to "fake" his tech. And by "tech," I mean the tech in the world of the movie. The guns, the ships, the computer displays, the vehicles -- everything has just enough of an echo of the real world to make it all seem lived in and completely plausible.
  • The 3D is unbelievable. It's not silly "look, it's coming atcha!" gimmicks. It's totally immersive and like being there.
  • The world building, while a bit of a simple minded riff on the Gaia myth, is incredibly well thought out.
  • Zoe Saldana rocks. But we all saw Uhura, so we know that, right? She's feisty, fierce and kinda hot for a tall, half naked blue cat. She totally sells the character, and you can see emoting and all the subtlety of a performance.
  • Sigourney Weaver rocks, too. But we also all know that. In fact, almost all the of the cast gives compelling performances.
  • Cameron can shoot some action. It doesn't matter if it's on location, on a soundstage or in a hard drive created out of pixels, the action is muscular, thrilling and edge of your seat stuff. And while there are a few draggy slowdowns, the slam bang set pieces more than make up for the lulls.

What I didn't like:
  • Yep, it really is "Dances with Smurfs." For all the high tech and alien trappings, Avatar is a (blue) paint by the numbers retelling of John Dunbar and the Noble Savages.
  • I'm not quite sold on Sam Worthington. His American accent is spotty, and I'm not sure he has the charisma to pull off leading roles that require more than gruff and brooding. (I thought he gave a better performance in the latest Terminator flick). He's not bad, and in fairness, Cameron didn't give him much to work with in the dialogue department.
  • Speaking of, the script -- other than the high tech concepts and deeply considered world building -- wasn't any great shakes. The lines were tired and cliche, and none of the characters did anything except exactly what you expected of them. There was barely a hint of wit, and certainly not a line I'm thinking of a couple days later. Contrast that with my personal best Cameron film, and one of my favorite and most watched movies of all time, Aliens, and I can still rattle off quotes over two decades later. (Just check out the IMDB "memorable quotes" section for Aliens and see how many still make you smile).
  • The score, by frequent Cameron collaborator James Horner (who has somewhat of a reputation for, kindly, "repurposing" familiar elements) is trite and derivative. It was so distracting, that every time the first two notes of a motif used all too often throughout the film played, I half expected Worthington's Sully and Saldana's Neytiri to start making out on the Lido deck while Billy Zane ran around with a pistol and a bad wig.

So, did I like Avatar? Yes, and kinda. As a "spectacle" and ground-breaking piece of visual eye candy, I give it an emphatic A+. As an original, well-scripted and captivating film (technical merits aside), I give it a C-.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The shippers have sailed

For the life of me, I do NOT understand hardcore "shippers." For those not familiar with the term, "shippers" (short for "relationshippers") are TV fans who base their entire enjoyment of a show on the successful resolution of a romantic subplot between their favorite characters. Usually, there's a cute portmanteau attached to the couple, like "Jam" (Jim and Pam from The Office) or "Jaters" (those who want Jack and Kate from Lost to get and stay together).

Shippers have been around forever, though they've really gained cultural currency with rise of internet message boards. I first remember the phenomenon with Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, but this week, shippers got some notoriety because of the whole Chuck and Sarah situation on Monday's episode of Chuck. Evidently, the NBC message boards were melting down, but you can get a good read on it in the comments of Alan Sepinwall's review of that episode here. (312 comments and counting!). Shippers were OUTRAGED that Chuck would decide to start dating the adorable new Nerd Herder Hannah, while Sarah would decide to mack on new secret agent man Shaw. Some fans went so far as to call for a boycott of the show, in order to teach the producers/writers "a lesson," and make them bring their favorite couple back together. (This is, of course, completely devoid of logic, as A) they're already waaaay ahead in the writing and production schedule, so a boycott would have little effect on plotlines, and B) any severe dip in the viewership of the show - one that's consistently been "on the bubble" for renewal anyway - would result in its cancellation entirely). Virtually every TV critic had some type of reaction to this supposed controversy, and it even prompted Sepinwall to get on the phone with the Chuck producers to address the situation. Whew.

I realize that fanbases can get passionate about the romantic pairings of their TV heroes. (Buffy with Angel? Buffy with Riley? Buffy with Spike?) But to call for an action that would result in the show you profess to love, and which inspires so much online dialogue and consternation, being axed? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme?

Hey, I love a good romantic coupling as much as the next fan. Last season's surprise pairing of Sawyer and Juliet on Lost was extraordinarily moving. I totally dug Willow and Tara together. And my favorite TV relationship ever was undoubtedly Crichton and Aeryn on Farscape. But would I quit watching a show, and encourage others to do so as well, just because my preferred pairing didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to, when I wanted it to? Uh, no.

That's not to say that I don't experience frustration, as a viewer, when relationships don't work out. But it has less to do with the romantic pairings and their "togetherness" than it does with the illogic and clunkiness of the plotting and writing. For example, even though I just praised the Sawyer and Juliet relationship in the preceding paragraph, I rolled my eyes so far back into my head I tangled my optic nerve during last year's finale when Juliet decided to go along with Jack's stupid plan just because of a "look" between Sawyer and Kate. Bones thrives on the "will they or won't they" chemistry between the leads, and often goes to ridiculous extremes to keep the unresolved sexual tension simmering between them (Brain tumor? Amnesia? Please).

But here's the thing. Lost isn't completely about who Kate winds up with. Chuck isn't solely about a nerd winding up at a "rose ceremony." If that's all you get out of the show you watch, then maybe you're watching the wrong show.

Finally, with regard to the Chuckpocalypse, a few additional thoughts:

Why am I suddenly reminded of this

If you're so invested in this show, then of course you realize that it IS a TV show, right? So then you know that Brandon Routh (Shaw) and Kristin Kreuk (Hannah) are guest stars, signed only for a limited number of episodes. So do you really think they are going to keep Chuck and Sarah apart forever?

From two plus years of Chuck watching, I think we can reasonably assume that the producers' end game will involve having Chuck and Sarah wind up together. (Schwartz and Fedak don't strike me as the Whedon type who will have their star crossed lovers realize their romantic longings, only to have one of them turn evil or die tragically). So if that's your ultimate goal, then have a little faith in the creators and the story they want to tell.

And doesn't Chuck seem like a show that's odd to take so seriously? Don't get me wrong, I find it's a fun way to spend an hour on a Monday night, and hell, I even bought a Subway sandwich last year as part of the renewal effort. But at the core, it's a lightweight, entertaining, 80's pop-culture romp. Can't we just enjoy it for that? Even when a show that takes itself seriously, like Battlestar Galactica, doesn't "stick the landing" completely in the end (or have the characters make the decisions we'd want them to make), it doesn't detract from the hours and hours of quality storytelling and performances we got from the producers. I'd rather the creators follow through with their vision, and agree to disagree with the journey and/or the destination, than have them tremble in fear and change course because the fans are vocal in their disapproval over one thread in a complete tapestry.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I think I'll try brevity...and other musings

The posting around these parts has slowed down the last couple of months, and I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. It's not like I haven't been writing or haven't had anything to say. I put together over 6,000 words on the Lost season premiere, but it lacked and thematic connective tissue, so I scrapped it (and really, if you're a Lostie, by now you've already read everything there is to digest about "LA X"). I had a nice piece called "diary of a nervous breakdown," but it didn't really have a resolution, so into the trash it went. I kept a journal on my adventures with satellite reception during The Snowpocalypse, but it was depressing (and still ongoing), so it never made it out of draft. I got halfway through a post-mortem on the flawed but brilliant Dollhouse, but never finished. I started a write up on my experiences and opinions regarding two touchstone TV series that I only recently got around to viewing (The Wire and Friday Night Lights), but I bailed about halfway though the writing. (Spoiler Alert: I really liked them). I also had a post put together on my inability to cancel my subscription to the Baltimore Sun, but it's also not resolved (Spoiler Alert: I quit paying, told them I didn't want it, but I'm still getting it! Yay! More coverage of lacrosse, the Ravens and overpriced and ineffectual government! Of course, the latter part I know, since I just watched The Wire). I was assembling a running diary and professional analysis of the Super Bowl commercials, but lost interest when it turned out that 90% of them (charitably) sucked out loud and should be considered a waste of money. (Does it say anything about the ads that the only two I remember clearly a week later are the Tebow ad, more for the pre-airing controversy and the fact that I despise this overhyped, simple-minded, uninformed future NFL washout with every fiber of my being, and which happily enough, was one of the least watched aired all game; and the borderline misogynistic Dodge ad, which didn't really make me want a Dodge as much as it did make me chuckle because it was brilliantly narrated by an Emmy-worthy actor who plays a serial killer?)

So is it just frustration? Busy with other things? Twittering too much? Getting started with topics that require more verbosity and scope than I can muster at the present, and over-shooting my mood? Not sure.

Therefore, for sanity's sake, and for those of you who still show up here with some regularity (thanks to all ten of you!), I'll try to push through this cloud of ennui, get my shit together, and not try to write Ulysses or Atlas Shrugged every time I have a thought on a TV show or a reaction to the new Domino's pizza (Spoiler Alert: it's better!)

In that spirit, a few musings:

What the fuck is wrong with people? Better Off Ted (presumably) aired its last episode, and ABC can't find a home for it on the schedule. Another riotously hilarious comedy, Archer (on FX) is drawing less 1 million viewers. Don't people know funny anymore?

Speaking of which, who's with me in thinking that the best of NBC's Thursday comedies are now Parks & Recreation and Community? 30 Rock still makes me laugh on occasion. And I've never been a big fan of the "cringe comedy" of The Office. (Though unlike many fans, I don't think Jim and Pam have turned into insufferably smug assholes. I just automatically tune out a show when it becomes all about PREGNANCY and BABIES. Though those subjects do usually turn people into insufferably smug assholes. Ugh).

I have no interest whatsoever in watching the Olympics. I think I got turned off a while ago by all the prepackaged "human interest" stories that made every athlete out to be some kind of Dickensian urchin overcoming adversity. (Which is the same reason I don't watch Idol until they get to the finals, and even then fast forward to the singing and Cowell comments. I don't like to watch "real" people, except when they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. I only like fictional people saying things that are scripted for them).

I have an exchange program going on with someone dear who shares 99% of my taste in and appreciation of quality television programming (this is the person who turned me on to The Wire). My well received recommendations thus far have included BSG, Spaced and The Middleman. Shows I'm considering for the next suggestion: Farscape, Supernatural, Buffy and Friday Night Lights. What would you pimp out next?

So glad Lost is back. All the hardship I've had to go through to watch both episodes (part of The Snowpocalypse story) has been worth it. (New all-purpose addition to pop culture quotage: "I'll be in the food court if you need me.")

Why is Caprica not getting better ratings? This show is rich, extraordinarily well written and well acted and thought provoking. Don't let any possible bitter taste you have over the ending of BSG (which, naturally, I have a complex relationship with) keep you from watching. It's not in space, it's different, but it's FRAKKIN' GOOD.

Okay, I didn't exactly succeed with my goal of brevity. But I'll be back soon.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Snowpocalypse

So....this happened:

In the past 15 or so hours, we've been hit with almost 3 feet of snow. Unshaven weathermen are calling it an actual "blizzard" (and not the good kind, from DQ, with cookies and M&Ms in it). There are 30 MPH+ winds, and the rare occurrence of "thundersnow" (where thunder and lightening happen during a snowfall. There was a flash so bright it woke me up at 5 AM). A state of emergency has been declared. Roads are closed and virtually everything has been shut down.

So what does this mean for me? Well, it could be worse, I guess. I went to the store recently, so I'm fairly well stocked with chips, microwave dinners, coffee, cigs and whiskey (you know, the staples). My power is not out. I have intertoobz service. There's cat food for the kids. BUT...

I have no TV. (I'll pause while you gasp in horror).

This started back on Tuesday, during the second hour of the much anticipated premiere of Lost, (of course it did). My dish and equipment is getting old (and regular readers will remember the completely wonky, "cable up 3 stories" set up I had to jury-rig back in the day) and the weather certainly hasn't been cooperating. Thanks to some twitter friends and some downloading, I finished "LA X" (and wasn't that mind-blowingly awesome?), and service came back Wednesday morning, and all was fine until last night, as the snow started accumulating on the dish itself. With time for Caprica approaching, I kept running down to the courtyard (where the dish is) to splash the snowy dish with hot water, sweep off the building snow, and spray the thing with Pam in the hope that nothing would stick to it. All that worked for a few hours, until I went to bed. I woke up this morning to the picture you see above (and no reception, obviously). I made a passing attempt to go down to the dish again, but...damn. The snow on the ground is up to my ass. The dish was fucking CAKED with snow. I brushed it off, but as of now, I'm still shit out of luck.

I do have the fine folks from DirecTV coming Tuesday, weather permitting, to figure all this out for me AND finally connect that long-awaited HD upgrade, but for the time being, I live in a world without live TV. Good thing there's not a major sporting event this weekend. Oh, wait...

I have a fairly decent stockpile of miscellaneous shows built up on the TiVo to tide me over, along with a formidable DVD library, but you know what? This SUCKS.

Still, it could be more gruesome, I suppose. If the web went down, or the computer crashed, I'd just go bury myself in a snow bank.