What I Learned From The Movies On TV

Live TV is sending me serious signals that it wants to spend more time apart.

You know how whenever they make a movie about a child’s heartwarming friendship with an animal, they almost always include that one scene where the kid’s telling the animal to run off into the wild, but it’s dumb and it doesn’t understand English, so the kid has to fight back tears and start yelling at it and calling it names and shouting “I hate you!” in between sobs because the kid knows that it’s the only way the animal can truly be free? I think TV has started doing that with me.

Every so often I’ll make a big production of finally going without a cable or satellite subscription, but I always come running back. Usually when I switch from a full-time job back to freelancing, and it usually comes down to the creepy feeling of being alone in an apartment with no live broadcast feeds coming in. It either conjures up memories of being a kid alone in the house, convinced the Rapture had come and passed me by; or it has me feeling like I’m in my own version of I Am Legend, except it’s San Francisco, so the zombies are hipsters and aggressive panhandlers asking for cigarettes and change.

So I have a hard time letting go, but DirecTV is making it easier.

First was the response when I tried to cancel a few months ago, and they instead switched me to a cheaper plan that whittled away the most inessential channels. It’s made it clear that no, I really don’t need to have two separate cooking channels, and that reruns of Jem and GI Joe weren’t just harmless exercises in kitsch nostalgia, but were actually feeding the emptiness at the core of my soul. And I learned that watching programming with Guy Fieri tests the limits of the idea “well, it’s better than nothing.”

Then there was that nonsensical dispute with Viacom, where Comedy Central and Nickelodeon (I don’t care what anybody says; The Legend of Korra is a fantastic series) suddenly disappeared from the line-up. It was bad enough that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were two of the main reasons for my keeping a satellite subscription. What made it inexcusable were the attempts by both companies to drag customers into a petty, public squabble, like children in a divorce.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to argue against piracy by making the case that content providers actually do perform a service, and insisting that ordering a la carte programming directly from production companies would be neither as simple nor as inexpensive as people seem to think. But that service is almost entirely the handling of stupid rights and licensing issues like these. I’m not paying for a satellite dish, a DVR, or their near-useless customer service; the issue of distribution is all but insignificant at this point. Instead, I’m paying for their legions of employees to negotiate with other legions of employees to guarantee that I can keep watching my stories without having to hear a desperate plea from Hulk Hogan.

Most recently, the release of OS X Mountain Lion added AirPlay to desktop Macs, so it’s finally convenient to watch stuff on the network websites on a big-screen TV. And today, Hulu Plus finally got a channel on the Apple TV box. I can’t explain exactly why it’s a big deal on Apple TV, when it’s already been available for a while on the Xbox 360, but whatever the reason, it suddenly got a lot more appealing.

Hulu’s got a ton of rights and licensing baggage of its own — most bizarre to me is that 30 Rock isn’t available on Hulu Plus, when it’s the show they use most often to advertise Hulu. And I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that some rights issue will pop up sooner or later, causing Apple to black out the most useful websites over AirPlay. Still, there’s enough on there that almost everything I watch regularly is covered, and a trip to iTunes will take care of the rest. When I tried this experiment a few years ago, it turned out that buying full season passes to every series I watch even semi-regularly would still end up being cheaper than a satellite subscription. And there’s only been more programming added to the web since then; it’d be even less expensive now.

Finally, and most importantly, the programming itself has helped push me over the edge. I’ve started to clear out stuff I’ve had recorded on my DVR forever, and I’ve tried actually watching more of the trash TV that I’ve been convinced I’ll miss if I ever go dish-less — usually Sci-Fi channel original movies. It’s been uniformly horrible. Just in the past few days:

  • 51: This was a Syfy movie from last year with Bruce Boxleitner as a soldier with a conscience dealing with rampaging aliens at Area 51. Even by the standards of Syfy originals, it was dire. It took the photocopier shotgun approach, emulating every science fiction movie it could think of: here’s the part that rips off The Thing, here’s the bit we took from Aliens, here’s a little scene from Jurassic Park. But the deadliest of aliens just looked like a veiny version of the Greendale Human Being. The wise “friendly” alien looked like Margaret Cho doing her impression of her mother, but talked like a pitched-down Siri. After an hour of bad effects, bad costumes, bad gore, and a ridiculous ending, I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
  • Showdown at Area 51: It got worse. This one is also about Area 51, and it also stars Jason London, but it’s not a prequel or sequel and was actually from several years earlier. It shows how much I’ve lowered my expectations that I was actually looking forward to Matt Houston‘s special guest appearance, but I went away disappointed. The most remarkable bad thing about this bad movie is at the end, where our heroes are escaping from the cave that has the alien device that could destroy the world if they didn’t stop it. The cave’s going to explode, of course, and they have to get out just in time, naturally, and they have to jump away from the explosion behind them in slow motion, obviously. But as they’re jumping out of the cave, you can see that the rock wall behind them has been just covered in graffiti for the Insane Clown Posse. It’s right there, big as day, “ICP” spray-painted on the cliff face that hid an ancient alien device. The location scout saw the title and the cast list and just stopped caring, right there.
  • Date Night: This just made me feel bad for Tina Fey, because she just came across as being so much better than the material. Still, as far as completely disposable comedies go, it’s not the worst. But it’s been sitting on my DVR for about a year now, a holdover from when I still believed I had to catch movies before they disappeared from the movie channels.
  • MacGruber: I’m not stupid; I knew it was going to be bad. I just didn’t understand how bad. What I don’t get is how you can make a movie that dependent on being raunchy and still manage to make it so humorless that the raunch just becomes boring. I also don’t get how that group of people can make a movie in 2010 that ends up being that homophobic. I’m plenty sensitive to homophobia when it comes to politics, but I still say that anything and everything’s fair game in comedy, or in whatever MacGruber was. But when all of the comedy in the movie’s supposed to be at the main character’s expense, it doesn’t make any sense to say “It’s funny what an assholish buffoon this guy is, and also gay people are weird and gross.”

From now on, any time I complain about not having enough time to read, or being out of the loop on what’s going on in video games because I don’t have enough time to play the big releases, or even not getting the chance to caught up on good television, I’m going to be the haunted by the memory of spending eight hours watching movies on TV that ranged in quality from execrable to “not the worst.” I still haven’t read any of Infinite Jest, but I have seen both Will Forte and Ryan Phillippe prancing around pantsless with a celery stick up his butt.