Thursday, July 23, 2020

Anyone Still Watching Basic Cable?

Remember when basic cable's scripted TV offerings seemed a fairly major part of pop culture? The Disney Channel had shows like That's So Raven and Hannah Montana (despite not watching the channel at all then, I knew there was something called a "Hannah Montana," even if I wasn't sure what exactly it was, an actual person or a character or maybe just a figure of speech), and Nickelodeon had iCarly. AMC's Mad Men was more a hit with Midcult-loving critics  and their upmarket followers than the general audience, but Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead were both confirmed popular sensations--while at the more grown-up but still lighter end of the spectrum, USA had Monk, and TNT had Leverage.

As Brad Adgate acknowledged in Forbes recently, hits like these are pretty much nonexistent these days. Where iCarly creator Dan Schneider watched his show pulling in 10 million viewers then on its best nights, his more recent Henry Danger, which Nickelodeon touted in a recent commercial as the #1 Kid's Comedy on TV, was bringing in under 1 million--bespeaking an astonishing collapse in that market. And it seems pretty much the same story elsewhere in this part of TVland.

Of course, this raises the question--just how will basic cable respond? The cancellation of Disney XD's Kirby Buckets in hindsight seems to have been indicative of a shift away from original, scripted, live-action fare in favor of other material--animation, gaming and the rest. It may be that this was an easier course for this particular channel, with its slighter market and margin for failure, and connections with Marvel and so forth, but it seems possible that other channels will be walking the same path, looking for other ways in which to cater to a shrunken base of viewers. One way might be their similarly turning to nonscripted fare. Another might be their doing what the networks have generally done, passing on more "adventurous" material in favor of more conventional fare--like the procedurals they keep churning out, very profitably.

Still Waiting on '90s Nostalgia

I have, from time to time, remarked the hints of a belated interest in '90s nostalgia (in the feature film version of Baywatch, or the sitcom Schooled, for example), but by and large these have just proven flickers (the Baywatch film was no blockbuster, Schooled cancelled after a mere two seasons), while a glance at the line-up of films initially scheduled for release in 2020 made clear that where nostalgia was concerned the '80s, after all these years, remained king.

And so I found myself thinking about the faintness of '90s nostalgia to date, developing some thoughts I had earlier a little further. It seems to me that one can simultaneously say several different things about the '90s--each true about different aspects of it, and altogether meaning that the era lends itself less well to nostalgia.

#1. The '90s Never Happened.
To the extent that people imagined the '90s would, in politics, values and the rest represent a break with the '80s--a reaction against Reaganomics and neoliberalism and neoconservatism and Cold War, a shift of our thinking in a more socially and ecologically conscientious, internationalist, de-militarized direction, or even a rebirth of countercultural radicalism ("Once we get outta the 80's, the 90's are going to make the 60's look like the 50's" '60s radical Huey Walker promised in Flashback)--the '90s never happened, amounting instead to a brief and quickly crushed hope that I suspect few even remember. What happened instead was that the '80s simply went on and on in this respect, the right pressing rightward rather than retreating amid the "end of history." (A glance at the Clinton administration's record of social and economic policymaking--government budget-cutting, welfare "reform," deregulation for finance, low taxes on the rich, Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, free trade, etc., etc.--certainly, makes it all too clear that it was a "continuation of Reaganomics by other parties.") And we cannot be nostalgic for what never happened, can we? (Indeed, it seems to me to say a lot that those things of the '80s for which we see nostalgia are, by and large, the things of childhood--while those who express a dissenting impulse, for lack of anything else, still look back to before the '80s, as we see in films like Roman J. Israel, Esq., or Joker.)

#2. The '90s Did Happen, But Was a Transitional Period Rather Than a Distinct Phenomena of its Own.
I have certainly had this impression thinking about film during this period--the action film in particular. We all know the distinctively "'80s action film" Hollywood turned out in that decade--Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris and Rambo and Die Hard and the rest. And we all know the sort of action film that has prevailed in the twenty-first century--dominated by superheroes and their heroics, with Spiderman, Batman and the Avengers delivering one billion dollar hit after another. But what about the '90s? Close examination, time and again, has convinced me that it was a transitional era where people still flocked to see Schwarzenegger in Eraser, while Hollywood, in spite of the early success of the Tim Burton Batman franchise, was making mostly second-string superhero movies, and Independence Day was novel enough to be a major event (while two decades later its sequel was predictably lost in the ever-larger summer crowd).

#3. The '90s Happened--it's the Period After the '90s That Didn't.
Perhaps the most unambiguous change in the sort of details of daily life that nostalgia-hawkers interest themselves in is perhaps what people call "technology." Yet, what in the heady '90s seemed to be the beginning of a new wave of digital wonders can, in hindsight, seem like the climax. Personal computing, Internet connections, cellular telephony all exploded then--and while they have got cheaper and more portable and faster enabling fuller exploitation of their potentials, it seems that nothing since has been quite so radical. Indeed, much of what was expected to follow soon--bodily immersive virtual reality, telepresence, self-driving vehicles and other equally dramatic artificial intelligence aids to daily living--proved rather further off than imagined, things we are still waiting for now two decades on, with "digital personal assistants" like Alexa still for the most part a novelty, and many still feeling themselves in a position to express a "Git a Hoss"-like disdain for the idea that cars will drive themselves anytime soon. The result is that rather than being in the '80s we remain in the '90s--and equally cannot get nostalgic for what never departed.

Of course, none of this means that there are not things that I look at and find to be particularly "'90s." Thus does it go with, for instance, those syndicated action hours one can still see rerun on channels like H & I (for now). They offer a style of entertainment not quite so available before, and clearly vanished since. Yet such items strike me as sufficiently minor as to leave those building entertainment out of nostalgia little to work with.

No Time to Die: Commercial Prospects

If memory serves, No Time to Die was the first blockbuster-grade movie to see its release deferred as a result of the pandemic--in this case all the way to late November (more than seven months after its initial release date). This will mean its coming out five years after Spectre--the longest gap in series' history apart from the span of time between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye.

Given the surprises this year has had for us all, and for that installment in the franchise in particular, I am in no mood to make predictions--but still comfortable with hypotheticals. Let us assume the release goes ahead as now scheduled, in something like a normal film market, where a comparison with that older film is actually useful. Goldeneye was, of course, a success, the first Bond movie to break the $100 million barrier, which did not quite mean what it had before, but even adjusted for inflation reversed the generally downward trend in the series' grosses since the '70s, an especially welcome development after the disappointment of Licence to Kill. (I might add that years later it seems to be widely regarded as, The Spy Who Loved Me apart, the best of the Bond films to appear between the original crop of the '60s and the twenty-first century reboot.)

No Time to Die does not have so much to recover from--but at the same time, a generation later, the concept may be that much more worn, the market tougher, while as I remarked not so long ago, if the Bond series has been borrowing ideas rather than generating them for a half century now, the ideas it has been borrowing seem to me less appealing generally, and certainly less easy to assimilate to the character. (Moonraker's sending Bond into space was wacky, and Licence to Kill went too far in reinventing Bond as a "someone killed my favorite second cousin"-type '80s Hollywood action film hero, but all that was less problematic than origin story prequels and family drama and overlong running times and the rest it took from recent action films.)

In considering all that it seems worth acknowledging that there has been a certain amount of noise over the hints that Bond will get married, and replaced by a female (and Black) operative. I have no idea how much it will mean amid all the flashy action stuff, and after all these decades of concessions to a gender politics less forgiving of the old conception (already by the late '70s things were changing, while I would say Casino Royale pretty much finished Bond off in this department all by itself), the bigger issue seems to me to be something more basic. Already by the late '70s the illusion that it was more than "just another action" series was beginning to fade, by the '80s pretty much gone, and if at times it seemed to defy it with a movie that persuaded much of the audience it was an event (because of a longer than usual span of time, because of a new concept), as Casino Royale and Skyfall managed to do, it is an increasingly difficult trick to pull off--while pulling it off seems more essential than ever to selling tickets.

NOTE: Between the time I drafted this post, and my being able to post, there has already been new talk of No Time to Die getting bumped again, all the way over to the summer of 2021. (Things are moving too fast for anyone to keep up with these days.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

What Ever Happened to Tennis?

Recently considering how the image of luxurious, glamorous living film and TV offer has changed I happened to mention the scale of the houses we see--which seems to me a matter of the exploding fortunes of the wealthy. Still, not everything seems easily explicable in such terms, with the changing nature of pastimes an obvious case. In our movies and television shows the rich and glamorous still play plenty of golf--but, I think, rather less tennis, a game that seemed ubiquitous in that kind of fare. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, after all, were not unknown to be on the tennis court. In the opening montage of the first season of Charlie's Angels, during Farrah Fawcett's bit we see her swinging a tennis racquet. What did the original Bionic Woman do before becoming an OSI agent/junior high school teacher? She was a tennis pro.

And so on and so forth.

All that is rather less evident now.

It seems plausible that this is bound up with the decline of interest in tennis more generally.

The generally accepted version of the story seems to be that tennis was, for the broader public, fresh and new in the late '60s and early '70s--thanks to the airing of major tournaments on television as the sport newly went pro, while it is held that colorful personalities and gender politics (John McEnroe's temper tantrums, Billie Jean King's feminism) sustained interest for some. That could not and did not go on forever, while the relative decline of American players' prominence at the sports upper levels reduced interest in the U.S. (kind of like with boxing). Given that even at its peak tennis was never exactly football or basketball (the U.S. Open no Super Bowl or NBA Championship even at its long ago height), all this meant it was vulnerable when "secondary sports" got squeezed out of press coverage and television broadcast (also like boxing), leaving it a long way from its glory days--and TV writers and producers less expectant that an audience will be suitably impressed by the sight of their protagonist on the court.

Luxury in the Neoliberal Era

A prominent theme of discussion of the Bond novels and films--the more critical kind that rises above a poptimist denigration of earlier works to better promote the new--is the ways in which the original conception has dated. One of the more interesting but less talked-about aspects of this is the earlier Bond novels and films' presentation of what may be called "lifestyle fantasy"--their image of what was luxurious and glamorous. As has been noted time and again, much of what seemed so in the '50s and early '60s--getting on a jet plane, staying in a Carribbean resort--has come to seem commonplace to "middle-class people," and even for those not affluent enough to afford such vacations (often confusing the "lifestyles" they see on TV with how they live), less wildly fantastic than they seemed back in the series' heyday. Much else has simply come to seem old-fashioned--like nightclubs as places where one wears black tie and evening gowns. (Certainly the opening sequence of the first XXX movie offered what a young person of even twenty years ago was apt to think of that.)

I have little to add to my earlier remarks about the Bond series here, but these days I find myself leaving on reruns of older television, and being struck by how, rather than some peculiarity of the James Bond series, this is generally the case. Looking at Hart to Hart's images of luxury, for instance, I find myself thinking about the house in which the Harts live. They have what can only be considered a very large and beautiful home. The vast majority of us, even those of us in the "First World," are unlikely to ever live in anything nearly so spacious or attractive. But today it does not give the impression of opulence that I suspect it was meant to; the grandeur one might associate with people who fly about in private jet planes.

This is most likely a matter of how the past few decades went. An era of spectacular economic growth they have not been for America, or the world. But the richest have got much, much richer. J. Paul Getty, in 1976 the world's richest man with a fortune of $6 billion, would, even with his fortune's size adjusted for inflation (to $27 billion in today's money), not make the list of the 25 wealthiest today. As will probably surprise no one, that list is now headed by Jeff Bezos, whose fortune (recently estimated at $146 billion) is more than five times as large as Getty's was then. And contrary to the drivel some "moralists" still spout about the Puritan virtues as the source of great fortunes, the billionaires have not hesitated to lavish the money on themselves, raising the stakes with regard to luxury--this age now seeing them take billion-dollar compounds as their personal homes.

In short, when it comes to houses, yachts and just about everything else where the expenditure of more money translates to more obvious opulence, the standard has changed, and changed profoundly.

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