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November 26th, 2008
The Devil’s Clack Dish: Fun, or not, with special effects

The Devil’s Clack Dish: A Column
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Television and movies have, in many ways, improved in their writing and special effects. No longer do we have to put up with too many network shows bristling with silly plots and even sillier dialog, thanks to cable.

For example, there’s always ESPN’s SportsCenter, which, while still loaded with inane comments, is not loaded with Hollywood-style spit-takes and cheesy catchphrases (save for the ever-present “Are you kidding me?”)

There’s a plethora of programming, thanks to cable, that caters to individual watching styles. I don’t like their series and talk shows, but I am thankful for the movies that show up on Spike, G4 and FX.  Insensitive as they are, I am not above watching a couple of Hong Kong Bloodshed films once in a while. Sure, there are plenty of inane shows on cable, but there’s a good chance “Kung Fu Hustle” or “Hellboy” will be on another channel.

I suppose the special effects proficiency of our age goes without a lot of explanation. The recent repeated TBS showings of The Wizard of Oz sharply expose our contemporary technical prowess. Yes, it’s still a charming movie, and there’s nobody like Judy, but the flying monkeys can’t hold a candle to the eye-popping effects of children’s films like “The Golden Compass.” Television and the movies have come a long way from the original Star Trek series and the clumsy props of The Time Tunnel or Land of the Giants. Even Dr. Who, with its early laughable foil-covered-box costumed robots, now has great special effects.

But television has also kicked it up a notch when it comes to irritation and discomfort. The most uncomfortable part of watching television used to be watching Ted Danson’s hairpiece or Jenny McCarthy’s acting skills. Now, there is a whole range of visuals that make one, at the very least, uncomfortable and sometimes downright irritated.

For example, have you ever seen that ad for the Ped Egg, a foot callus grooming device that probably has its productive uses for somebody? You know the part where they dump the groomed calluses out of the Ped Egg into the garbage can? I don’t think any of us needed to see that. I believe the used Kinoki footpad could also be in that category.

The upchuck is now a common viewing event. Whether it is a vomiting character on My Name is Earl or Two and a Half Men or a stock-trading baby spitting up in a high chair, it seems that losing one’s cookies is thought to be necessary to amuse the viewer. I am not squeamish, but I don’t find ralphing funny to watch or to hear. I worked in childcare/rehab facilities for years and I’ve cleaned up things you probably could not view or smell without retching. On the up side, all the throwing up on television makes the constant belching and farting look benign and acceptable by comparison.

And what about the excruciatingly painful Celebrity Rehab where Jeff Conaway and Tawny Kitaen breakdown on camera? It is heartbreaking to watch Conaway show the massive scar on his back, rant at the therapy group and watch his aging face contorted in genuine pain. It can be argued that this sort of exposure could help someone on drugs, but I’ve known a few heroine addicts and, as far as I know, they weren’t impacted by any television shows. The rehab/reality shows are mostly there to make straight people feel better about their lives. This seems to be pretty cold comfort.

It’s more than a bit obscene to watch someone’s personal problems, whether they are big stars, spoiled rich wives or regular folks. It doesn’t make us feel better off or entertained as much as it just ends up convincing us that most people are not particularly interesting in the same way that “Girls Gone Wild” doesn’t show any girls doing anything that could even remotely categorized as wild. It’s mortifying, more than anything else, to watch our dull species being even duller than we thought we were.

I like television. I’d be unhappy to lose Adult Swim, and The Blitz and Alton Brown. I’ve seen great shows on the History Channel and Ovation. It’s a lot easier to take the advice of people who say, “If you don’t like what’s on television, don’t watch it” when there are so many things to choose from even if one of the choices is the 22nd time you’ve turned to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

So these trends, like vomiting, other people’s personal pain and selfishness and, uh, more vomiting, are all the more irritating because of their ubiquity.

Lately I’ve begun to hate the tiny people that show up in the corner of the screen to tell you about some new series while you are watching another show. This trend has shown up everywhere but TCM (thank heaven). You’ve seen the little characters that bounce in merrily and scamper along the bottom of the picture to tout their latest episode. If the show being watched is at all interesting (and with so many choices, it should be) the distraction of their hawking something you probably will now not ever watch is really irritating.

In the middle of The DaVinci Code, some little folks showed up in the corner of my television screen to remind me about some new hilarious comedy. They were blocking the view of an important written message that served as a clue to the movie. Perhaps this is television’s way of converting movie watchers to book readers, but I highly doubt it.

At least they didn’t vomit.

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