Predictable Plotlines

Spoiler alert: This post will discuss events occurring on episode 5 and earlier episodes of 1883.

We’ve been enjoying 1883, the prequel (by about 140 years or so) to Yellowstone. The most recent episode, however, had one of those plotline developments that you could see coming from a mile away.

1883 follows the story of the Dutton clan. The show begins as they arrive in Texas, ready to head north to Oregon territory. The Dutton family includes flinty-eyed, hard-as-nails father James Dutton, equally tough mother Margaret Dutton, young son John, and daughter Elsa Dutton, shown above upon her arrival, who is ready to take it all in. The Duttons join a ragtag band of hapless German and Eastern European settlers who will form the wagon train, led by Sam Elliott and his faithful lieutenant LaMonica Garrett, that heads north for Oregon and into danger.

Young Elsa narrates the show–a device that I personally find annoying, frankly–and displays more naive, wide-eyed wonder than you might expect from a young woman or that era. She gets to experience the personal freedom of the old West, ditches her dress for pants and becomes a kind of cowhand who helps to move the herd accompanying the settlers, is dazzled by the land, develops a love interest in cowpoke Ennis, goes on and on about her first kisses with him, and finally can resist the primal urges no longer and has her first intimate encounter with Ennis at the edge of the camp.

At that point, we knew poor Ennis was dead meat. And sure enough, only a few scenes later and thanks to the handy arrival of bandits, poor Ennis gets shot and killed, Elsa’s heart is broken, and she presumably will lose her rose-colored narration forever.

1883 is one of those shows, like Lonesome Dove, that hits you over the head with incident after incident that shows that the old West was a violent, deadly place. Already we’ve seen multiple shootings, smallpox deaths, an attempted rape, dysentery, theft, bandit attacks, a suicide, drownings in river crossings, and clueless German settlers bitten on the butt by rattlers as they’ve answered the call of nature –and we know an Indian attack is coming, too. But none of those prior events really dented Elsa’s doe-eyed sense of innocent wonder about the world, and the viewer knows that if she’s going to make it she needs to become a tough and worldly as her parents. And that’s why poor Ennis, who was a very likeable character, clearly had to go, and why viewers like us could see it coming.

Predictability in storylines isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When you get readers, or viewers, interested enough to be thinking about what’s going to happen you can be pretty sure that you’ve got them hooked. Now that Elsa has had her brutal firsthand experience with the terrible realities of life, she’ll be changed forever. We can only hope that we get a little bit less of the voiceover narration in the bargain.

Living In Record TV Time

The ’60s was when people first became concerned about television. Social scientists and commentators railed against the “idiot box” that was turning our brains to mush and converting formerly active, intelligent, inquisitive people into soft, slack-jawed shmoos soaking up whatever mind-numbing offering might appear on their TV set.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow survived our constant exposure to the TV set that had a prominent place in our living rooms. But I’ve got news for you, folks: when it comes to TV, the ’60s was nothing compared to where we are right now. As The Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday, the number of English-language scripted TV shows that are available for viewing in the United States hit an all-time high last year. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, in 2021 559 English-language shows were available. That’s 13 percent more than in 2020 and 5 percent higher than the previous record in 2019. And consider this astonishing statistic reported in the THR article: “The total number of scripted shows has more than doubled in the last decade; in 2011 there were 266 scripted series.” What’s more, that 2021 record number doesn’t include any of the non-English-scripted shows that people are watching, like Squid Game or Money Heist.

In short, Americans are literally saturated with TV these days. Unlike the ’60s, when there were only three broadcast channels and one or two snowy UHF options, all of which terminated their broadcasts at some point in the early morning hours, you now could watch programming 24 hours a day, every day–and not even scratch the surface of what is available for viewing. And in the COVID era, it’s become increasingly easy to ditch the masks, slouch back on your couch, and immerse yourself in TV, rather than going out to do anything. I’m sure that part of what is driving the TV production boom is the fact that so many worried people are choosing to stay home rather than venture outside into the scary potential omicron infection zone. Rather than take that risk, why not just camp out and watch the latest hot streaming series?

As I mentioned, those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow avoided the confident predictions that we would become a bunch of brain-dead zombies–at least, I think we did– and hopefully that will prove true, again, in the aftermath of the current TV-soaked period. But it is concerning that TV shows have become such a huge part of our lives, to the point where our voracious appetite for programming is driving the TV production industry to new heights. We’d all be better off if we decided to get off the couch now and then, turn off the TV or computer, and get outside to interact with other living human beings.

Mayor Of Kingstown

Every once in a while, you watch a TV show that makes you wonder: could parts of our modern world really be like that? is there somebody who actually has that kind of job, and lives that kind of life?

Mayor of Kingstown, on the Paramount + network, is one of those shows. Set in a town where the main business is prisons, with multiple correctional facilities within a small geographic area, the show focuses on the complicated and explosive balance between guards and gangs, prisoners and police. And the so-called “Mayor” is the guy who is tasked with maintaining the peace between all of the competing factions. Part diplomat, part strategist, and part tough guy who isn’t shy about cracking heads, the Mayor keeps the channels of communication open, advises the guards and the gangs, brokers compromises, and basically does whatever he can to keep a desperate peace in place.

Calling this show “gritty” doesn’t really begin to capture it. It’s about as grim as it gets, with characters who clearly feel trapped in a seamy underworld of violence, crime, and horror. It’s a world where characters drop the f-bomb every second or third word–and you definitely understand why. But the premise is compelling, the show is very well-acted, and the sense of reality, whether in prison or out on the streets, is solid. Jeremy Renner is excellent as Mike McLusky, the poor guy tasked with an impossible job. And we particularly like Tobi Bamtefa as “Bunny,” the smart drug dealer who spends all of his time sitting next to a cooler on a lawn but has his finger on the pulse of the town and helps Mike keep the lid on the pressure cooker, and Nichola Galicia as Rebecca, MIke’s capable, do-everything assistant. Every show like this also needs a fearsome and convincing “bad guy,” and Aidan Gillen more than fits that bill as the cold-blooded, sociopathic Milo Sunter.

Season 1 of Mayor ended with a bang. We’re glad to hear that the Hollywood scuttlebutt is that the show will be renewed for a second season, with new episodes to begin airing later this year. That should give us enough time to brace ourselves for another dip into the grime.

Redefining Sniveling

Kish and I finished watching season 4 of Yellowstone earlier this week. It was an interesting season, full of curious twists and turns. And once again we got to see that Wyoming, just across the border from Montana, is a convenient dumping ground for the human debris created by the outsized antics of the Dutton clan.

I won’t discuss the plot developments, so as not to spoil surprises for those who haven’t yet caught up on the season, but I do want to comment on the development of the characters. Beth Dutton continues to push the envelope of unbelievably risky and outrageous behavior far beyond the breaking point. Rip Wheeler showed more hints of an actual human being underneath his hardest of the hard asses veneer. Kayce seems adrift, and John Dutton is always full of surprises.

But the character whose development has been the most striking is Jamie Dutton. At the start of the first season, Jamie was the tough, high-powered lawyer who could use the law to crush the family’s opponents. By the end of season four, Jamie has become one of the most sniveling, craven, and contemptible characters in the history of television, easily manipulated by everyone he talks to and bereft of any personal courage or integrity. He’s kind of like Frank Burns from M*A*S*H transplanted to the mountains of Montana, with a constant pathetic and frequently befuddled expression on his face, his chin quivering and looking as if he is ready to burst into tears at any moment. Just as Beth Dutton is plowing new ground in outrageousness, Jamie is marking out new territory in abject spinelessness.

As a lawyer myself, I hate to see a fictional lawyer reduced to a trembling tower of jello–but as a viewer I have to admit I find Jamie’s pusillanimous descent makes for interesting TV. Kudos to the writers and actor Wes Bentley for presenting this fascinating cowardly lion in full flower.

Soylent Green And The Bleak Sci-Fi Of The ’60s and ’70s

2022 is not only our fresh new year, it’s also the year in which the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green was set. Soylent Green envisioned a truly awful 2022: the world was grossly overpopulated, mass starvation provoked regular food riots until the masses received their “soylent” food rations, the environment had been ruined by pollution, and people were at the mercy of a cold-blooded authoritarian police state. The movie allowed Charlton Heston to exercise some of his legendary scenery-chewing acting instincts, including the classic final scene where Heston shouts to the world: “Soylent green is people! It’s people!”

In short, Soylent Green sets a very low bar for our 2022. This year might not be great, but at least it’s unlikely that we’ll be eating each other.

We’re living through a lot of the years in which bleak sci-fi movies and stories were set–Blade Runner, for example, was set in 2019–and the future hasn’t turned out to be as grim as the writers envisioned. There’s always been a pretty strong tradition of horrific futures in science fiction, as writers took whatever seemed to be the problems of the day, multiplied them, and extrapolated them forward into terrible future worlds that were dark, overcrowded, starving, wrecked, merciless, and governed by fascists. (If that tradition holds true, current sci fi writers may well be envisioning distant futures where epidemics rage.)

Of course, most of those visions turned our to be wrong. We haven’t experienced a nuclear holocaust, been terrorized by killer artificial intelligence or intelligent apes, seen our oceans turned to sewage, or experienced planet-wide starvation and horrific plagues. Sci-fi writers of the ’60s and ’70s would no doubt be stunned to learn that one of the biggest health problems in our real world of 2022 isn’t starvation–it’s obesity!

Travel Roulette

We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.

Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:

  • Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
  • Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
  • Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
  • The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.

We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit

Down To The Last Monkee

One of the tough things about getting older is seeing your childhood heroes fall by the wayside. For example, it was hard to read that Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees, died yesterday at age 78. Michael Nesmith was the “smart Monkee” who always wore a stocking cap with the ball on top; he was the favorite of the cerebral kids. Davy Jones and Peter Tork have already gone to the great beyond, so Nesmith’s death means that Mickey Dolenz, who was my favorite Monkee, is the only surviving member of the group. That just doesn’t seem possible. After all, the Monkees’ theme song said they they were the young generation, and they had something to say. So how can they be dying of old age causes like heart failure?

The Monkees were an interesting phenomenon, and in some ways a precursor for a lot of what has happened in popular culture. They were the original “fake group”–put together to be on a Beatles-knockoff TV show and also serve as the faux front band for music produced by studio musicians. As a kid, I didn’t understand how weird and groundbreaking this was: the Monkees had a TV show that I thought was funny, they drove around in a cool car, and I liked their records. (We faithfully bought all of them.) And the first record said on the back that each of the Monkees played specific instruments and sang, and you could hear their voices on the records. That had to be true, right?

Later I realized that the Monkees were in fact different from groups like the Beatles, because the Beatles actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and were accomplished musicians. But the realization that the Monkees were faking it didn’t change my appreciation of the Monkees’ records. We played their songs when I was in college, and I still listen to them. In fact, in recognition of Michael Nesmith’s passing, we listened to some of the Monkees’ songs last night at a gathering with friends and enjoyed them.

The difference between the Monkees and the other fakes that followed was that the creators of the Monkees didn’t scrimp; they got real songwriters (like Neil Diamond, who wrote the classic Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer) and real musicians to play the instruments, and also experimented with some cutting edge sounds that fit right in with where popular music was going at the time. My all-time favorite Monkees tune, Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, is a good example of how bringing all of that together created something really good.

After the Monkees heyday ended, Michael Nesmith went on to have an interesting career and helped to usher in the era of MTV and music videos, but of course he was always identified with the Monkees, as his New York Times obituary linked above reflects. He seemed to be at peace with his role in the popular culture of the ’60s. Those of us who enjoyed the Monkees TV show and still love the music wish him well.

Gone Too Soon

Everyone has a list of TV shows that–in their view at least–were inexplicably cancelled, or ceased production, just as the shows were hitting their stride and you were fully and firmly hooked. Kish and I spent the last few weeks binge-watching The Knick, which was broadcast for only two seasons and which ended with a cliff-hanger and numerous plot lines dangling, and we put it firmly into our pantheon of shows that we wish had continued.

The Knick tells the story of the Knickerbocker Hospital in turn of the century New York City. Led by the brilliant but hopelessly addicted and self-destructive Dr. John Thackery and trailblazing surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards, the Knick deals with all kind of issues of the day: racism, mass immigration, rampant public health problems, addiction, appalling medical quackery, the eugenics movement, abortion, corrupt city government and skimming hospital employees, and just about every other problem you could imagine in an American city at the dawn of the modern era. It’s fascinating, and the rich historical setting itself adds to the fascination: it was an era when the early motor cars mixed with horse and carriage on Manhattan streets, travel by steamship brought a flood of rich travelers and impoverished immigrants to the City, electric lights were being installed, the x-ray was introduced as a diagnostic tool, and new approaches and inventions were found around every corner.

I am partial to historical dramas and period pieces, and The Knick does an excellent job of presenting the era. The sense of historical reality–from the street scenes, to the interior of houses, to the hospital’s surgical amphitheater and scrub room, to the pitch-perfect nurse outfits, the ambulance driver’s uniform, the fancy dresses, and the hats worn by seemingly every character–is total. And The Knick doesn’t downplay the primitive (by our standards, at least) medical and surgical techniques, either: Dr. Thackery is happy to try newly devised techniques on living patients (including, notably, himself) in the name of advancement of medical science, and total charlatans mingled easily with legitimate doctors. You’ll find some of the surgical scenes to be bloody and hard to watch, but also presented with the definite ring of authenticity.

Alas, The Knick ended in 2015, and we’ll never know what happened to Dr. Thackery, Dr. Edwards, hard-charging nurse Lucy Elkins, contemptible and corrupt hospital manager Herman Barrow, ambulance driver Tom Clancy, or the many other interesting characters on the shows whose tales must be left untold. But at least we got to enjoy two seasons of this very engrossing show. The Knick is right up there with Deadwood in our list of shows that were gone too soon.

Sportsgiving

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a pot-luck family gathering at JT’s Pizza, which is closed for the day. That means we get to watch football on JT’s bank of TVs.

It’s not a bad way to celebrate the classic American holiday. My Dad, my Uncle Tony, and my Aunt Bebe would have loved this. Mom and Grandma Webner, on the other hand, would have hated it.

Hot Shot

I like spicy food. In my never-ending quest for heat, when I go out to eat I’ve gotten in the habit of asking what kind of hot sauces the restaurant has available. I’m always on the lookout for something new and good to add to the home refrigerator hot sauce collection.

Yesterday I tried Yellowbird Habanero Condiment for the first time. My technique for sampling Yellowbird, like any newly discovered hot sauce, is to start first with trying it on french fries, then moving to liberal application to the sandwich if the sauce passes muster. I think a bit of caution is prudent when you’re talking about unknown, random hot sauces. That way, if the sauce doesn’t hit the spot, I only lose a few fries and not the entire sandwich.

I’m happy to report that the Yellowbird sauce gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. It’s on the hotter end of the heat scale, but not so far that it could be featured on a Man vs. Food episode. It gave just enough to give the food some zing, paired well with both the fries and my fried chicken sandwich, and provided the incentive for a slug of cold beer. It had very good flavor, too, which is something some hot sauces neglect in their quest for unendurable, crippling fieriness. And it left my lips with a pleasant heat level when the dining is done, which is another telltale sign of a good sauce.

I’ll be looking for Yellowbird in my neighborhood grocery store.

Waiting On The Winds

Some things seem to take forever . . . but nothing seems to take as long as the release of the next book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, on which the Game of Thrones TV show was based. Called The Winds Of Winter, its release date has been repeatedly delayed.

Multiple presidential elections have come and gone. The HBO series hit the pinnacle of popularity and ended. Pandemics have swept the face of the globe. And still A Song Of Ice And Fire readers wait, and wait, and wait — like the poor unfortunates who are trying to get out of Africa that the narrator describes at the beginning of Casablanca.

Author George R.R. Martin has taken progressively longer to release the next volume in the series. The first book was published in 1996 (that’s 25 years ago, but who’s counting?), the second in 1998, the third in 2000, the fourth in 2005, and the fifth in 2011. In short, fans of the series have been waiting for a full decade for the next book. We’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that I’ve written before–six years ago–about the delayed publication date, and we don’t seem to be any closer to an actual release of the book. And The Winds Of Winter isn’t even the last book in the series!

Why do fans care about this? After all, some would point out, the HBO series told us how the story ends. But the books are much richer in detail in their description of Westeros and its inhabitants and their culture, with important characters who never even made it on the TV show screen. And while I’m not as negative as some are about the ending of the HBO series, I’d like to see how the creator of this compelling world wraps up the story. Of course, I’ll have to go back and reread the prior books when The Winds Of Winter comes out, just to make sure that I am fully recalling all of the different plot threads.

So, when is the next book coming out? No one but Martin really knows, but the speculation is that it will hit the bookstores in November 2023–a mere two years away. Having waited for a decade, I guess I can endure another two years.

Or three, or four . . . .

The Great Theme Song Dispute

Recently I was embroiled in an earth-shakingly important discussion. The topic was which TV show theme song was better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island? We weren’t debating whether they were the best theme songs in TV history. (That exalted designation must certainly be reserved for the theme song to Mission: Impossible.) Instead, we were engaged in a careful comparative analysis of these two theme songs, both of which tell a story that sets the context for the TV show itself.

I would have thought that this was an easy call. In my view, the uplifting tale of a happy, hard-working rustic who discovers oil on his property thanks to an errant rifle shot at some furry woodlands creature and then moves to Beverly Hills–all told to the accompaniment of some rollicking pickin’ music–is clearly superior to the improbable story of seven passengers on a boat who, thanks to an undetected storm, find themselves cast away on an unknown island within boat ride distance from southern California. But to my astonishment, other participants in the conversation, after giving the matter the serious consideration it deserves, voted for the Gilligan’s Island theme over The Beverly Hillbillies.

That conclusion is just wrong on many levels, so let’s set the record straight. The Beverly Hillbillies music–The Ballad of Jed Clampett, performed by Flatt & Scruggs, with its banjo-picking frenzy as the Clampetts drive into Beverly Hills–blows the forgettable Gilligan’s Island tune out of the water. The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was released in 1962, hit number 1 on the Billboard country music chart, was on the charts for 20 weeks, and even rose to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island was never released as a single, so far as I can tell. Musically, it’s like arguing about whether the Beatles are better than the Four Freshmen.

And the lyrics for The Beverly Hillbillies are better, too, telling a classically American Horatio Alger-type story in which the “kinfolk” offered supportive advice to the upwardly mobile Clampetts. It includes some great rhymes, too, like “Jed” and “fed” and “food” and “crude.” Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, featured the annoying repetition of “a three-hour tour” and made clear that the show’s characters were caricatures defined by their circumstances (“the millionaire and his wife,” “the movie star,” and “the rest”) rather than giving us the kind of rich context we learned about the Clampett clan.

And the key test is which song you’re less likely to forget in your dotage. For me, that’s undoubtedly The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

I rest my case.

Squid Game

Squid Game, a one-season Korean TV show, has become a kind of sensation since it premiered on Netflix in September. You know a series has really touched a nerve when people start dressing up as characters from the show for Halloween and speculate about whether there will be a second season and if so what its plot will be.

I watched the show this week, and found it both fascinating and repellant. It’s hard to say anything about the show without offering spoilers, so I will just note that the plot boils down to two depressing commentaries on the human condition: first, that financially troubled people who are separated from their families and friends will do just about anything for money, and second, that non-desperate people will take advantage of that reality for their own sick, personal amusement and will be able to find other people who can rationalize assisting in the whole effort and enforcing the rules for pay. The players are 456 Koreans who are so deeply in debt that they agree to play a desperate game–called the Squid Game after a rough game played by Korean kids on the playground–in hopes of winning a huge and potentially life-changing jackpot, as they are watched on TV by sick “VIPs” who have enlisted legions of masked guards to enforce the rules of the game.

It’s a pretty grim and terribly violent series, and its presentation of the underside of Korean society is incredibly bleak–so much so that, even when the players understand the real rules of the “Squid Game” and have the chance to go back to their normal lives, they quickly realize that their lives are so hopeless and depressing that they voluntarily go back to the game. And there is a certain fascination, from a psychological and sociological standpoint, in watching the players play variations of different children’s games that the masked “front man” has carefully determined will expose and exacerbate the worst aspects of the players’ characters and incentivize them to do whatever it takes to win. There aren’t many characters in the show who retain even a shred of decency as the game proceeds.

The show clearly doesn’t present a very appealing view of South Korea or the human condition in general, and I haven’t decided whether I want there to be a second season of Squid Game or just think about the plausibility of the scenario presented by the series as is. I’m not sure I really need more evidence of the seamy underside of human beings right now.

Truth, Justice, And A Better Tomorrow

Some people on the conservative end of the political spectrum are pretty upset at DC Comics, which publishes the Superman comic books. They’re miffed that The Man of Steel is changing his motto.

For years, Superman has professed to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Many of us know this because we watched reruns of the ’50s Adventures of Superman TV show on UHF channels when we were growing up. We remember the introduction to the series, shown above, where a serious sounding narrator, after noting that Supes was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, informed us that he fought for truth, justice, and the American Way while the actor playing Superman sucked in his gut and the American flag waved in the background.

DC Comics says it is changing Superman’s motto to “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow” to reflect a broader, more global vision for Supes’ world. You can tell it’s a conscious effort to update the comic book hero to modern norms, because the article linked above quotes DC Comics’ “chief creative officer” as saying, without evident concern for exaggeration: “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward with this new mission statement.”

That’s right: Superman now has a “mission statement.”

The kerfuffle about The Man of Steel’s motto is another great contrived point of contention for “commentators” to argue about, but even as manufactured media controversies go it’s pretty thin gruel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with punching out bad guys or reversing the rotation of the Earth to try to bring about “a better tomorrow,” and it’s not like standing for “the American Way” has any well-defined, specific meaning these days. Does it mean supporting the freedoms enumerated in Bill of Rights, or the ability to eat snack foods while sitting on your couch and binge-watching the latest hot Netflix series, or something else?

I’m perfectly content to let comic book characters change with the times. And if Superman wants to update the part about being faster than a speeding bullet, because that image is too triggering for the current generation, and more powerful than a locomotive, because nobody thinks of locomotives as especially powerful these days, I’m fine with that, too.

Death Of A UHF Pitchman

Ron Popeil has died. The inventor/developer/popularizer of countless weird products and the star of ever-playing infomercials, Popeil was 86.

If you got anywhere near a TV during the ’60s and ’70s, you knew the name Ron Popeil. He was the guy who sold many of the products that were featured on commercials on the “UHF” channels on your TV.

(I realize as I write those words that many people alive today have no idea what a “UHF” or “VHF” channel was, or how they were different. Here’s a primer. The VHF channels were numbered 1 through 13, were on the VHF dial on your TV with clearly demarcated slots for the stations, and accordingly were easy to find and came through on your TV much more clearly. The three networks and their local broadcast stations were always on one of those VHF channels. The UHF channels, on the other hand, were on a different dial that didn’t have specific channel indicators, so if you wanted to watch a UHF station you first had to switch to the UHF dial, then carefully turn that dial incrementally, with the precision deftness of a brain surgeon, to find the best signal for channel 43 or channel 61, manipulate your rabbit ears to further enhance signal quality, and put up with some “snow” on the screen and fading in and out. Nevertheless, becoming a master of UHF channel tuning was an essential skill for any kid who wanted to watch Three Stooges shorts, Star Trek reruns, bad horror movies, and the other enticing mainstays of UHF programming. The UHF stations eventually became a lot more accessible when cable TV became widespread.)

The first Ron Popeil/Ronco product I remember was the Veg-o-Matic, which allowed you to put a peeled potato on a kind of wire screen below the top of the device, depress the top, forcing the potato through the screen, and thereby produce french fries that were ready for the fryer. The Veg-o-Matic always seemed to me to be of limited usefulness, but it sure would come in handy if french fries were a staple of your diet. And of course the Veg-o-Matic was only one of a host of odd Ron Popeil products. There was the Ronco Steam-A-Way, a gun-like device that allowed you to steam out the wrinkles that appeared in your clothes while you were traveling. There was the Buttoneer, which appeared to replace thread with plastic stays to keep buttons attached to their fabric forever, and which was known mostly because its commercial the same phrase countless times as frustrated people dealt with lost buttons: “The problem with buttons is . . . they always fall off!” We can’t forget the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, a fold-up fishing product that allowed avid anglers to always be ready to set a hook and drop a line into any brook or pond they happened to pass by (although I don’t think bait was provided). And finally Ron Popeil brought us Mr. Microphone, a cordless microphone that could tie in to the frequency of your car radio and allow you to broadcast annoying comments to passersby. The smooth ’70s character with the bad haircut shown in the photo above uses Mr. Microphone to deliver the deathless line: “Hey good lookin’. Be back to pick you up later!” (That one has become a standard catchphrase in our household.)

It’s strange, and kind of scary, to think of how all of these Ron Popeil items, and their related commercials, have become so firmly lodged in my brain synapses that I can easily recall them, decades later–but that’s what repeated watching of UHF TV will do for you. RIP to the Master Pitchman and his menagerie of products.