Why streaming makes me long for Blockbuster and the VHS tape

This brave new digital age, I am told, has brought us unparalleled convenience and endless options.

Those days when people had to rely on cable and Blockbuster? The Dark Ages! Or so I am told.

What about Netflix?

I know: I’m sounding like a Luddite already. But I’m not; I’ve plunked down the monthly fee for a Netflix subscription. Maybe this streaming stuff isn’t so bad, I thought. Give it a chance. Everything I’d want to see that isn’t currently playing at the cinema will be on Netflix, right?

Actually, not so much. While the vast, vast catalog of Netflix does include a handful of high-quality series and movies, the overwhelming majority of it consists of B-grade fare that is there simply for the sake of volume. There are endless series and movies from amateurish production companies in South Korea, Poland, Romania, and Colombia. Plus all the stuff that never made the top tier of the American film industry.

I’m sure there are a few hidden gems among all those lumps of coal. But who has the time to sort all of that out?

Streaming options for a random movie

Meanwhile, what about something I know that I do want to see? I’ve been wanting to watch the World War II movie Greyhound, starring Tom Hanks, since it was released in 2020.

Four years later, Greyhound is no longer a new movie. It’s actually kind of an old one. Greyhound ought to be on Netflix, right? After all, Netflix has room for all those series dubbed from Korean, Romanian, and Spanish. They ought to have Greyhound.

Netflix doesn’t have Greyhound.

If I want to see Greyhound, I have to get an Apple TV+ subscription for $9.99/month.

Wait! I already have a Netflix subscription at $22.99 per month. (Netflix recently raised the prices of all its plans.)

But if I want to see a single 4-year-old movie, I have to get an Apple TV+ subscription, too.

My other option is decidedly un-digital and unhip: I could buy the DVD on Amazon.

That’s probably what I’ll end up doing.

Streaming options for a favorite series

The Americans, a spy drama about a family of Soviet sleeper agents in Reagan-era America, is my all-time favorite TV series. The Americans originally ran on FX from 2013 to 2018.

I wouldn’t mind watching The Americans again. It was my all-time favorite show, after all.

The Americans ought to be on Netflix, right?

No, The Americans is not on Netflix.

How about Amazon Prime Video, then? (I pay $139 per year for an Amazon Prime Membership.)

Nope. The Americans is not on Amazon Prime Video, either. (BTW, neither is Greyhound.)

If I want to see The Americans, my first option is to purchase a digital copy of each episode at $1.99 per episode. There are 75 of them in total, so that comes out to $150.

I also have the option of buying a Hulu subscription. Hulu recently licensed The Americans. The ad-free Hulu subscription costs $17.99 per month.

So far, this streaming stuff doesn’t seem all that great.

Were the 1980s better?

Before we answer that question, let’s consider why the present age might be much worse.

A few years back, someone (?) decided that we all wanted to watch TV on our 6.1-inch phone screens, instead of actual televisions.

Why? Who knows? Personally, I’d much rather watch a movie on the screen of a 55-inch Sony Bravia TV, for example. I have no interest in watching a two-hour movie on the 6.1-inch screen of my iPhone. It’s a simple matter of geometry.

The infatuation with mobile devices led inexorably to streaming. We couldn’t expect people to mess with physical media anymore. Physical media was no longer cool.

So instead we now have to manage a score of monthly streaming subscriptions. Netflix has its own walled garden. Ditto for Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Paramount +, and many others.

Such is the price of so-called progress. We’re paying a lot of money, and often getting a lot less, just because the market has bought into the latest technology.

Technology is great if it makes life better. If technology makes life more inconvenient or expensive, then go back to the horse and buggy, say I.

RCA television print ad from the 1970s

And the horse and buggy wasn’t so bad. Now let’s look at the way we sourced entertainment in the backward 1980s and 1990s.

Movies appeared first in the cinema. Then, after a predictable period of 6 months or a year, they showed up in Blockbuster and other VHS/DVD rental outlets. For a nominal fee, you could borrow any title for 3 to 5 days.

Any TV show you wanted to watch was on cable. Most were on standard channels!

Easy-peasy. 

In those days, HBO was only for movies. HBO was a cable alternative to Blockbuster. But there was practically no movie that you could only get on HBO. Renting it on physical media for a few bucks was always an option.

Superior to streaming? They always had my favorite movies at Blockbuster, and for only few bucks.

So simple. And no—we never thought about watching a 2-hour movie on our landline, analog phones, either. Not when we had those big RCA and Zenith televisions, with their 27-inch screens.

That would have been almost as foolish as watching a 2-hour movie on an iPhone today, when you can watch the same movie on a modern flatscreen television, with a 55-inch screen.

-ET

‘The Wire’: the best crime drama ever?

I’m coming a little late to this party (the story of my life, basically); but I started binge-watching The Wire on HBO today.

Set in Baltimore during the 00s, The Wire is a crime drama about the War on Drugs.

The only problem with The Wire is that it might be a little too life-like. You’ll forget that you’re watching television. In that respect, the show is absolutely brilliant.

The characters, too, are lifelike, and depicted by top-notch talent (Dominic West, Idris Elba, Lance Riddick, Wendell Pierce, and many others).

That said, The Wire contains depressing themes and storylines. (It’s a gritty look at the War on Drugs, after all). There is an excess of foul language, and no small amount of graphic violence. The trigger warning nitwittery hadn’t yet fully arrived when this show originally aired. That was fortunate, because The Wire would have needed a whole slew of trigger warnings—everything from racial epithets and drug use to murder. 

Not for tender audiences, and not for anyone in search of light entertainment, either. But if you like realistic crime dramas, you shouldn’t miss it.

-ET

Original story idea vs. execution: which is more important?

The other day, one of you emailed me to get my take on an age-old debate in writing, filmmaking, and storytelling circles:

Which matters more…the big, highly original idea, or the execution of the story, regardless of its originality?

Many writers fret constantly about people “stealing their ideas”. They put off writing because they “don’t have any original ideas”. They worry about forgetting ideas.

So which is more important? There is evidence for both.

Star Wars took off in 1977 partly because it was such an original idea. Here we had the rough equivalents of cowboys and samurai warriors in space. There had never been anything like that before.

In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.

The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?

The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.

Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.

When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.

An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.

I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.

There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.

***

On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.

We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.

This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”

For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.

The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.

But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.

Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).

Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.

But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.

Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.

And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.

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I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.

There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:

The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…

  • The star-crossed lovers…
  • The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
  • The sympathetic vampire
  • Aliens/zombies/other monsters disrupt human society…
  • and so on…

Nevertheless, both novelists and filmmakers continue to find fresh new angles on these old ideas…new ways to execute them.

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For example: I recently enjoyed the final season of Bosch on Amazon Prime Video.

Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.

Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.

Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).

It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.

‘The Osbournes Want to Believe’: quick review

Watch The Osbournes Want to Believe on Amazon 

The music of Ozzy Osbourne has long been one of my guilty pleasures. I’m from the Ozzy generation, you might say. I hit adolescence in the early 1980s, perfect timing for Ozzy’s three breakout albums: Blizzard of Oz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981) and Bark at the Moon (1983).

By the time I graduated from high school in 1986, Ozzy Osbourne’s music  was already becoming somewhat predictable and repetitive. Or maybe I was just getting older?…Who knows? But anyway—if you were around in the early 1980s and into rock music, you’ll surely remember the energy of those first few albums. They were really something.

Ozzy Osbourne was always more of an entertainer than a technical musician. From the beginning of his solo career, the former Black Sabbath frontman effected this macabre persona, which was uniquely appealing to 13-year-old boys, circa 1981. Then there was the thing about him biting the head off a dove at a meeting with CBS record executives. (He was intoxicated at the time.)

By the early 2000s, Ozzy Osbourne’s style of music was long past its expiration date. The singer pivoted—to reality TV. From 2002 to 2005, MTV aired The Osbournes. Each episode of The Osbournes was basically a day-in-the-life with the singer and his family. I caught about fifteen minutes of one such episode, and immediately knew that The Osbournes wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of reality TV to begin with, and I found Ozzy’s two teenage children, Kelly and Jack, somewhat annoying.

I was therefore a bit skeptical when I tuned into my first episode of The Osbournes Want to Believe, which now airs on the Travel Channel. But the The Osbournes Want to Believe is actually not too bad…if you’re willing to accept it for what it is.

The Osbournes Want to Believe presents a new spin on the well-traveled paranormal investigation/ghosthunting TV genre. This show doesn’t feature parapsychologists and professional skeptics, breaking down videos of shadowy figures and independently moving objects. Here, instead, you watch and listen as three members of the Osbourne family give their take on such matters.

Son Jack serves as the host of the show. Yes, I found him annoying 18 years ago; but he’s now 35 and actually pretty good as a television host.

Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, is a shadow of his former self. To quote his Wikipedia entry, Ozzy “has abused alcohol and other drugs for most of his adult life.” In 1978, he unapologetically told a journalist, “I get high, I get f***ed up … what the hell’s wrong with getting f***ed  up? There must be something wrong with the system if so many people have to get f***ed up … I never take dope or anything before I go on stage. I’ll smoke a joint or whatever afterwards.”

The singer is now in his early seventies, and his decades of substance abuse are readily apparent. Ozzy is always likable, and at times genuinely witty; but he seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep. If not for his reputation, Ozzy could be mistaken for Joe Biden giving an unscripted press conference. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) No one need wonder, though, why Jack serves as the show’s moderator. Ozzy would not be up to the task.

Sharon Osbourne, of The Talk, is perfectly lucid and endlessly chirpy. Nor is she exactly unlikable. But—like the class clown of everyone’s school days— she tries too hard to turn every remark into a joke. Her humor doesn’t always miss the mark; but it rapidly wears thin because it just never stops.

The overall tone of the show is informal and conversational. The set looks like a room in one of the homes owned by Osbourne. Watching The Osbournes Want to Believe gives you the sense that you’re sitting around with this oddball family, watching these weird videos of weird happenings.

The Osbournes Want to Believe is not cutting-edge television; but it isn’t trying to be. And although I’m not an expert on such matters, it doesn’t appear to be cutting-edge in the field of paranormal research, either. Most of the commentary—however witty and occasionally funny—is purely speculative and anecdotal. 

This show seems to be yet one more attempt to cash in on the Ozzy Osbourne brand. That brand was launched more than 50 years ago, when the first Black Sabbath album hit the record stores in 1970.

How long can the Ozzy brand go on and continue to make money? Probably for as long as Ozzy can be dissuaded from completely obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol.

Vintage ‘Magnum P.I.’ on Hallmark

It still like the original version…

About a year ago I wrote a quick review of the rebooted version of Magnum P.I. that’s now in its second season on CBS. 

As I wrote in 2018, I like the new Magnum. Jay Hernandez does a fine job in the titular role, and I don’t mind the decision to make Higgins a female character in the 21st century reboot. (Perdita Weeks arguably makes the show.  And the chemistry between Hernandez and Weeks is even better than the old banter between Selleck and Hillerman.) Moreover, Tom Selleck is now in his seventies. He’s in good shape for a man that age; but Thomas Magnum is clearly a role for an actor in his prime. Old school though I am, I wasn’t about to make the case for casting Selleck in the rebooted version of this 1980s weekly crime show.

That said, I recently noticed that episodes of the original Magnum P.I., which ran from 1980 to 1988, were playing on the Hallmark Channel. I watched a few of them to see how they would hold up to the test of time.

The good news is: quite well. Yes, some of those 80s fashions are cringeworthy today—even to an 80s relic like me. But the scriptwriting and the action are still engaging. 

Magnum P.I. always had a lighthearted aspect. This is, therefore, light entertainment. Magnum P.I. never had any pretensions of being thought-provoking or heavy. That was as true in the vintage series as it is in the reboot.

I watched many episodes of the show back in the 1980s, but not all of them, by any means. For me, the years 1980 through 1988 comprised  junior high through the middle of college. This was before video-on-demand and DVRs. Sometimes I tuned in, and sometimes I didn’t. 

But it’s been more than 30 years since the last vintage Magnum P.I. episode was broadcast for the first time. I don’t remember any of the storylines, really. I am therefore having a good time watching them again, as if for the first time.

‘Speed Racer’, my favorite Japanese import in 1972

I can tell you what I was doing, most afternoons at 3 pm in 1972. (I was four that year.) I was sprawled out in front of my parents’ boxy Zenith television set, tuned in to Cincinnati’s Channel 19, WXIX. 

That was the time and place in which Speed Racer aired.

The Speed Racer franchise began in Japan in the 1960s as a manga comic series. In 1967, a Speed Racer animated cartoon was developed; and this is what found its way to the US market (dubbed into English, of course).

The best way to describe Speed Racer is as follows: The series concerns the adventures of “Speed”, the driver of the technologically advanced Mach 5 racer. 

Like many Japanese manga, Speed Racer takes place in a setting that is the real world, but not quite the real world. There are unrealistic technological menaces (like the “Mammoth Car”); and the series may have had a monster or two. 

I didn’t know back then that Speed Racer was a Japanese import. (I also didn’t know that many years hence, I would learn the Japanese language; but that’s another story.) At the age of four, I may not have even been aware of Japan. 

I just remember being thrilled by the adventures of Speed and the Mach 5. These were fun cartoons, filled with action, and instantly accessible. Speed Racer is the first television series that I ever became a fanatic of; and in 1972, I was a Speed Racer fanatic. 

I recently watched a few episodes of Speed Racer on YouTube, for nostalgia’s sake. These cartoons fascinated me at the age of four. And even at the age of 51, they retain for me a certain charm. 

Speed Racer intro, 1967

Binge-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in 2018

 

I have always loved mafia movies. I am one of those guys who has seen The Godfather more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

I also watch all the documentaries about the mob. I know the name John Gotti, of course, but also Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, and Aniello Dellacroce. The Italian mafia made an appearance in my first novel, Blood Flats. I’m sure I’ll write more stories about the Italian mafia in the future.

I was therefore a natural audience for the HBO series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). But for various reasons, I didn’t get around to actually watching The Sopranos until this year, when I binge-watched all six seasons of the series over several months.

Yes, I’m a little late to this party. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Pages and pages have already been written on the Internet about The Sopranos, dating back to the aughts. I will therefore keep my comments brief. (Er, well, fairly brief.)

The Sopranos is probably best categorized as a drama, but it’s a drama that’s loaded with plenty of physical threats and suspense. (In this regard, The Sopranos is similar to The Americans (FX), my all-time favorite television series.)

The Sopranos  employs a great deal of black humor. Murders are often committed with a smirk.

Black humor is completely absent from The Godfather. But 1972 moviegoers didn’t expect a film about the mob to have a laugh track. By 1999, however, incessant “irony” was thoroughly embedded in our culture, and it would probably have been difficult for The Sopranos to be played completely deadpan for six seasons. Black humor is not usually my thing, but in The Sopranos, it mostly works.

It is important to consider just how difficult this high-wire act was, from the moment of its conception through the last scene of its execution. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, faced a two-sided challenge:

When conceiving characters who were mafiosos, Chase had to portray his subjects’ amoralism and brutality, without turning them into unsympathetic monsters. If a main character (even an antihero) is completely unsympathetic, audiences don’t become emotionally invested in him, and don’t care about his fate.

But at the same time, Chase had to make his characters sympathetic, while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re ultimately criminals. Crooks. Thugs. Bad guys. So it really was a very difficult balance.

Chase pulls this feat off brilliantly. The Sopranos is filled with cynicism, violence, and betrayal. And yet…Each major character is complex and distinct.

Before you finish the first episode, you feel like you know these people, and you want to see more of them. And that’s as much as anyone can ask for.

All of the major characters are also expertly cast. I did a little research, and it seems that a majority of the actors were Italian-Americans who had some connection to the New York/New Jersey area.

Not just James Gandolfini, but also Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Did that have an impact on the authenticity of the show? I think it may have.

But there’s one character, of course, who is the tentpole, the central pillar, the focus for the entire series…and that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Without the character of Tony Soprano, The Sopranos would have been a mildly interesting Godfather knockoff that would have lasted a season or two, and then would have been quickly forgotten.

I would also speculate that without James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano would not have been nearly as effective.

I’ve seen James Gandolfini in a few other films. He played a junior U.S. Navy officer in Crimson Tide (1995), for example. Gandolfini is unspectacular in his pre-Sopranos roles. But as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini is a giant. He seems to have been born for this role. (It is also unfortunate to note that Gandolfini met an untimely death, at the age of 51, about six years after The Sopranos ended.)

Tony Soprano is capable of both nobility and venality, loyalty and ruthlessness. Flashback scenes suggest that his parents were both sociopaths. Tony, by contrast, seems to legitimately care about his wife and children. But that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a string of extramarital affairs. He is, after all, a mob boss. Philandering comes with the territory.

One of the more interesting subplots involves Tony Soprano’s (nonsexual) relationship with his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco). Tony is tortured by crises of identity. He suffers from panic attacks. He has a spiritual side (several episodes are dedicated to explorations in this regard), even as he’s capable of being petty, greedy, and violent—exactly what you would expect a mid-level mob boss to be.

And this is, I think, why the character is so appealing. Almost no one who watches The Sopranos knows firsthand what it is like to be a mafia capo. And yet, we identify with Tony Soprano in a thousand ways.

I know that I do: I see a lot of myself in Tony Soprano, the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted human being who nevertheless harbors aspirations of doing/being better.

The Sopranos takes some dark turns in the final seasons. This may partly be related to the changes that were happening in the real world between 1999 and 2007. The first few seasons of The Sopranos has a buoyant fin de siècle feel, despite the subject matter.

Let us not forget that in 1999 and 2000, the mood of the country was optimistic. Everyone was captivated by the ever-rising stock market, and the then novel wonders of the Internet. By 2007, American politics had taken a sharply partisan turn, 9/11 had happened, and we were embroiled in two quagmire wars in the Middle East.

And so the last few seasons of The Sopranos focus—perhaps more than necessary—on the dark sides of the characters’ lives. Not just the killings, but also various personal traumas.

One of the main characters develops Alzheimer’s. Much time is devoted to the troubles associated with Tony Sopranos ne’er-do-well son.

Tony and his wife, Carmella (played by Edie Falco), separate for an entire season, when she decides that she can no longer tolerate his extramarital adventures. (Spoiler alert: Tony and Carmella eventually reconcile.)

Some of the arguments associated with the marital split are almost too realistic. While watching these scenes, I actually felt that I was an unwilling witness to the breakup of a real marriage. There were several moments when I felt physically uncomfortable.

And what about that final scene of the final episode? After a flareup of factional mob violence that leaves many of Tony Soprano’s friends and associates dead, he meets with his wife and children at a restaurant, for what is supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The family members arrive separately. Tony has been in hiding.

While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (a deliberately chosen song, of course) is playing on the jukebox, Tony surveys the other diners, speculating that one of them may be an assassin sent to kill him.

First Carmella arrives. Then his son, AJ.

Finally, Tony’s young adult daughter walks in. Tony looks up at the sound of the bell above the door (the restaurant is a neighborhood diner).

And the screen goes instantly silent and black.

The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent, downright spiritual for a show about organized crime. (I have a confession here: I hated the ending the first time I saw it. But after I re-watched it on YouTube several times, I found that I recognized and appreciated what David Chase had done here.)

And now The Sopranos is over, for me at least. If you haven’t binge-watched this show, find a way to do so now. The Sopranos is among the best drama ever to see the screen.