Archive for May, 2008

20
May
08

Belicheater?

I doubt many people today recognize the name Charles Van Doren. Charles Van Doren started out like anyone else, just a regular guy. Eventually though, he would grow to be seen as a genius, a man whose knowledge of seemingly any subject far surpassed all of his peers. Van Doren would find a way to utilize that knowledge to come into great wealth and popularity during the 1950s, only to be exposed as one of the biggest examples of fraud ever.

Van Doren was a game show contestant, and a very successful one, a regular Ken Jennings of his day. He stayed on the NBC game show ‘Twenty-One’ for a solid three months, accumulating $129,000 and annihilating every challenger that faced him along the way. And as he became a regular staple in the homes of Americans, he earned their admiration, their respect and their trust as a television personality. So much so, in fact, that immediately after he was defeated, he was offered a position as a correspondent for the Today Show, a move which seemed to imply that Americans loved Charles Van Doren so much that they simply didn’t want to lose the chance to watch him on TV.

The problem was, Charles Van Doren was a phony. Turns out the producers of ‘Twenty-One’ liked him on TV just as much as the American people did, and they had been feeding Van Doren answers to the questions he would be asked beforehand (which he eagerly accepted) so all he had to do was pause, look slightly puzzled, answer the question, and occasionally pat his brow with a handkerchief.

The funny thing was, Charles Van Doren certainly could have done very well without any help at all. He had a B.A. in Liberal Arts, a Masters in Astrophysics, and a Doctorate in English, and he was a member of a notoriously scholarly Ivy League family. In simpler terms, he was just plain smart. And Van Doren tried out on his own, which would imply that he thought he could hold his own on the show to begin with. So once the facts came out that proved he had been fed the answers the whole time, the question became: can a man still be considered a cheater if he doesn’t necessarily need the edge he gains from cheating, and should that act of cheating be held against him?

The National Football League now has a Charles Van Doren of its own, and they’re trying to figure out just what to do about it. Bill Belichick, as we all have known for quite some time, was heavily involved in the Spygate scandal, and now, with the testimony of Matt Walsh, the league is discovering that Spygate just may be a bigger deal than they once considered. True, no completely new information was uncovered by Walsh’s testimony, but it served to solidify what we had already assumed: that Bill Belichick knew he was cheating, he knew he was doing something other teams weren’t, and he did it anyway, all the time wanting no one to know about it. And this went on for at least eight years.

But Belichick, like Van Doren, is respected as the best at what he does. Winner of three Super Bowls in four appearances, two time coach of the year, and one of two head coaches in history to coach their team to a perfect regular season record. It’s an impressive resume, to be sure. But this one black mark, in my opinion, is enough to wipe it all off the board.

Gregg Easterbrook, author of the column Tuesday Morning Quarterback, thinks the best solution is a year suspension for Belichick, and I tend to agree with him (his article is found here, and it’s worth a read). Yes, Belichick was fined a significant amount of money (that really may not have been that significant considering his multi-million dollar salary) and the team had to forfeit a draft choice (which Easterbrook accurately points out punishes the fans more than it punishes Belichick) but that simply isn’t enough. If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to keep the NFL clean, he’s got to set boundaries that are clear, or else those boundaries will continue to be pushed. If consequences are strict and enforced from the beginning, then coaches and players will certainly think twice before they consider pushing those boundaries. Essentially, to save the league’s reputation, Roger Goodell needs to make Belichick his scapegoat.

My assumption, though, is that Goodell doesn’t want to punish someone who is such an important figure in the eyes of the league and the fans. The words ‘Belichick’ and ‘genius’ have been tossed around together so frequently since the Patriots won their first Super Bowl that people are really beginning to accept the designation. Meanwhile, Belichick has achieved godlike status among fans, players, and his fellow coaches. I think Goodell believes it would be too detrimental to the league to take a character of Belichick’s status out for a year, and that’s why he chooses not to.

In all honesty, I think it’d be better in the long term for the league if he did suspend Belichick, and maybe even take it one step further. Think coaches would think twice about anything close to cheating if Belichick, a surefire first-balloter, was banned from the Hall of Fame? You bet they would. In my opinion, leaders need to be held to a higher standard, that’s why being a leader is such a tough job. Right now, the NFL is the most popular and profitable sports league in the nation, and that could easily change if it gets bogged down with too many preventable scandals. The problem remains, though, that Belichick is just too big of a personality, too well respected and too beloved, and perhaps that allows him to exist above the law.

That’s why we make excuses for him. That’s why we will come to the conclusion that the tapes didn’t really help all that much, that they didn’t need the tapes to win, and that it’s really not a big deal. But an ace up your sleeve is still cheating even if you win with a king-high flush. That ace up your sleeve still means that particular ace is now out of play for the other 31 people playing the game, which gives you an unfair advantage, which is cheating, no matter which way you slice it, and that must be addressed.

*****

After being uncovered as a cheater, Charles Van Doren was promptly removed from his correspondent job at ‘The Today Show’, a move the network made to save their own face and disassociate themselves with the monster they essentially created themselves. Then, just as quickly as he was removed from that job, he got a new one: chief editor for the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Today, he’s a well-respected author and college professor, and is not questioned regarding his time on ‘Twenty-One.’

Time will only tell if the world is as forgiving to Belichick as they were to Van Doren, but my guess is that it will be, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sure, there will be chanting fans and mocking signs held up at a handful of games next year, but the truth of the matter is, the Patriots are good, and they most likely will continue to be a winning franchise in the next few years, and that glory will likely land upon to two men: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But the question of the Patriots’ talent is not the most important one. The real question that only time can answer is whether or not Belichick’s actions will give way to more questionable behavior that is let slide by a far too tolerant league, and a new generation of Americans are given the message that a good reputation can substitute for integrity, and that succeeding by any means– cheating included– is, to put it plainly, acceptable.

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16
May
08

How The Office is Changing the Face of the American Sitcom (And Nobody’s Watching)

Think back ten, maybe fifteen years. If you remember prime time television from back then, you likely remember one thing: the best shows on TV were sitcoms– little half-hour vacations from real life into the funny world of wacky but likeable characters. In the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the sitcom was king. From 1986 all the way through the 90’s and early 2000’s, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Friends all held the title of “most watched show on television” for at least one year, and each one of them, in their own way, captured the attention of America and will remain a part of its cultural landscape for years to come.

But the American sitcom is dying. Since Seinfeld left the airwaves, the only comedy show to hold the number one spot was Friends, and that was only for one year. The top-rated shows from 1999 on to the present include ER, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Survivor, CSI, and American Idol. In fact, it was right around the start of the new decade that the sitcom began losing ground against reality TV, with Survivor leading the charge, opening the door for American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and Why Exactly Does He Have a TV Show? Featuring Flava Flav.

But there’s one show on TV now that I believe is leading the charge towards a new brand of comedy show, a show that breaks the older mold of what a sitcom should be, and does it in a way that appeals to the new cultural mindset while still remaining completely hysterical.

The Office is the only reason I turn on my television. It’s the only thing I watch other than sports (careful readers will note I also have admitted to dabbling in American Idol, but I watch that on YouTube. And I also watch 30 Rock, but that comes on right after The Office, so there’s no need to turn the TV on again, now is there?) The Office is smart, witty, and touching, and its premise is far more realistic than any other show on TV. But The Office is doomed to fail unless more people climb on board, and there’s a simple reason why:

Nobody watches The Office. At least, according to the standards with which networks judge a program’s worth, nobody watches. The Office is currently the 56th most watched program on television (shocking, considering how much a part of the cultural lexicon it is). When the show first aired, it was #102. Friends, during its entire 10 year run, never dipped lower than 5th, and Seinfeld, in its last five years, never dipped lower than 3rd. The thing is, it’s not just The Office that’s struggling, it’s the sitcom in general. Two and a Half Men, which CBS regularly advertises as the “number one comedy on television” is 19th overall, meaning there’s nearly twenty other shows that Americans would watch rather than a sitcom (and a poor excuse for a sitcom, at that).

So since the sitcom is dying, naturally those in charge of creating sitcoms are trying hard to reinvent their genre and breathe new life into it, and in many ways they are doing a solid job of it, despite the lack of viewership. Sitcoms used to follow a very standard pattern: they were filmed in front of a live audience, they featured live or canned laughter, and they were typically about a small cast of main characters that in many cases lived well above what their means would be in actual life. Also, each episode featured one main storyline and occasionally another minor storyline, both of which were always resolved nicely by the end of the episode. Now however, many shows have been revamping those old guidelines, shows like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and you guessed it, The Office.

Now sitcoms typically feature a main character surrounded by a wide and diverse cast of funny minor characters and regularly recurring guests. These shows are increasingly self-referential, meaning that not only are regular viewers are rewarded for their loyalty to the show, but that repeat viewings often provide more laughter. Storylines are more and more complex, and can last over the course of many episodes, or even over the course of multiple seasons. And there’s no laugh track. This is important, because without laugh tracks, shows can be funnier, because they don’t have to spend so much time waiting for people in the studio audience to stop laughing. This is growing increasingly popular–watch an evening of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday, (My Name is Earl, Scrubs, The Office, and 30 Rock) once considered the “gold standard” of comedy television, and the only laughter you’ll hear is what you produce yourself.

So why is it that The Office is leading the charge among all the other “new sitcoms” out there? Because The Office does one thing better than any of those other shows out there, something that most of those 90’s sitcoms almost never did. The Office utilizes pathos, making you sympathize with its characters, and relate to them on a level unlike any other show. Old sitcoms never had this pathos. Think about Seinfeld: what made the show genius was its complete lack of pathos–if anything, you felt sorry for the people that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer encountered, but you never felt sorry for the four characters themselves (a fact that served as the basis for the show’s series finale). In last night’s masterstroke of a season finale of The Office, there wasn’t a character in the whole episode that you weren’t meant to feel some level of sympathy for at some point, surprising considering the focus of the show is to make you laugh. But the show wants you to relate to the characters like they are real people, which is only emphasized by its mockumentary format.

So in essence what The Office has done is taken the old sitcom and made it as close to reality television (what’s popular today) as it could while still remaining outlandish, hysterical, and most important–smart. But in many ways it’s that intelligence that may doom the show. Americans have increasingly shown that when they watch television, they don’t want to think. That’s why American Idol needs its ‘professional’ judges to tell people how to vote, and that’s why dumbed down shows that tell you when to laugh like Two and a Half Men succeed while The Office flounders. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m staunchly against the dumbing down of American culture, so it’s not surprising that I’m in the corner of The Office on this one. That’s not to say that I think The Office is going to make geniuses out of us all, but at least it can give you something more to think about while you’re watching television.

So yes, the sitcom is currently in a bad way, but The Office has the ability to revitalize the genre and insert a bit of intelligence into TV watching. The only question is: does America want it to?

01
May
08

How To Solve The Fat Problem, or, How NOT To Get Voted President

It’s no secret America is fat. The most popular, or rather, most viewed post I’ve written on this blog is this one, about how Disneyland is having to restructure “It’s a Small World” because obese Americans are causing the boats to bottom out. As I said before, if we’re too fat for our own unique form of entertainment, we’ve got a big (no pun intended) problem on our hands. I understand that weight is a very sensitive subject for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of people out there who are very insecure about their weight, and who, try as they may, simply can’t get the body they so longingly desire, which is unfortunate. This is not about those people.  But there are a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, either can’t get the help they need, or don’t care enough that they’re damaging their health, shortening their lifespan, and heightening their risk of heart problems, diabetes, and other debilitating diseases. And now there’s this article:

What If No One Were Fat?

The gist is this: the obesity problem in this country is costing us $487 billion dollars a year. That’s nearly half a trillion dollars annually. The article outlines just how that money is being lost: through higher fuel needs for airlines carrying heftier passengers, clothing companies spending more money on extra material for plus-size clothing, medical expenses due to weight-related issues, wasted dollars spent on unnecessary calories, and loss of productivity in work places because of sluggishness or weight-related sickness.

Seems crazy, right? Because of a slumping economy, this summer the government is giving each taxpayer at least $600 to stimulate the economy, but this article says that if we cut the fat (figuratively and literally) in America, we could afford to give each family $4,000. Sounds pretty good with the state of finances these days, right?

Anyway, after reading this I got to thinking about why it is that the powers that be in our nation aren’t doing anything to help out people with significant weight problems. These days, it’s gotten pretty trendy to be environmentally conscious, so if it’s cool to care about our planet, why isn’t it cool to care about our own bodies and the health of future generations? Politicians it seems are afraid to discuss it because it’s such a sensitive issue for so many, but if health issues continue to rise at the rate they’re growing now, it’s going to become too late to deal with the problem real soon. So with that in mind, here’s my eight-point submittal to the average American politician: “How to Solve the Fat Problem.”

1. Raise Taxes on Corporations that Produce High Calorie Foods and Beverages: the major problem with high-fat and sweet foods is that they’re so easily accessible. But think about this- if companies like Coca-Cola, Hostess, McDonald’s, and other stereotypical providers of unhealthy foodstuffs were taxed up the wazoo, they’d have to raise their prices to compensate. So imagine you go to the soda machine to find that instead of a Coke being a dollar and a bottle of water being $1.25, the bottle of water is a buck and the Coke is $6. My guess is that people would start looking at sodas, fats and sweets like they should be seen: as a luxury. Also, in my head I’m giving a tax break to bottled water companies (which I understand is unrealistic considering Coke and Pepsi produce Dasani and Deja Blue, but it’s my fantasy, so back off…) Anyway, once you take all that tax money from the sweets companies, you then would turn around and give it back to other places, such as…

2. Government-Subsidized Gyms: It’s no surprise one of the reasons people don’t join gyms is because they can’t afford them. But what if the government provided enough money to reduce that membership fee to, say, $5 or $10 a month…? A little more appealing now, don’t you think? And while we’re on the subject of gyms…

3. Give Tax Breaks to Corporations that Offer Gym Memberships as an Employment Benefit: Companies offer medical, dental, and vision, so why not exercise benefits? It’s a win-win for those companies, too, because if a company offered gym memberships as a standard benefit, don’t you think there’d be a bit more competition to work for those companies, meaning those companies would get the cream of the crop for their employees? Not to mention, those employees are healthy, which lowers the cost of the company’s medical benefit costs, and increases their productivity.

4. Put More Strict Restrictions on Food Stamps: Here’s where we could get into some messy territory. It’s been proven that the obesity rate is higher the lower class level you go. Right now, if you receive food stamps because of low income status, you can buy almost anything you want out of the grocery store. But what if food stamps only bought healthier foods, like juices, fruits, and veggies instead of soda, cookies, and Cheetos? Realize that we’re moving a bit from a completely free society here, but again, it’s my fantasy.

5. Higher Physical Education Requirements In Elementary and Secondary Schools: I’ll be the first to admit it: I wasn’t the most fit kid on the schoolyard growing up, and the time during PE class when I sweat the most was in anticipation of the President’s Physical Fitness Test (except for the Sit and Reach, which I never really got that nervous about…) The major problem with the President’s test, though, is that it’s a joke. I was far below average on pretty much every test, yet I still got an ‘A’ in PE. Think I would’ve worked a little harder if I had gotten the grade I deserved? You bet I would’ve. And if I’m working harder, I’m establishing a more active lifestyle from a young age. And that’s the point, right? It’s pretty simple- if a kid doesn’t know math, he fails his math class. If a kid can’t run a couple laps around a basketball court without stopping for an exasperated session of bent-over hyperventilating, he should fail his PE class.

6. Stronger Health Restrictions on School Lunches: A no-brainer. Substitute the tater tots for celery sticks. Crisis averted. Plus, celery is cheaper than tater tots to begin with… in other words, health benefits + saving money= happy school. Basically, if we put nutritional restrictions on school lunches, where they can’t exceed a certain number of calories, and they have to contain a certain amount of essential vitamins, we’ve got healthier kids.

7. Advertising Restrictions: This one’s crazy, but I love it. Think about this: years ago, it was decided that Joe Camel had to go, because cigarette companies using cartoons to sell their product was selling a life-damaging product to kids. Now take that mindset and walk down the cereal aisle of your local grocery store. Cocoa Puffs, Fruity Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, what’s the common thread? An enthusiastic, smiling cartoon character welcoming kids to stuff themselves with sugar right off the bat every morning. Maybe if we took the same position on unhealthy foods as we took on unhealthy smoking, we’d make some more progress.

8. Increased Funding for Youth Sports: I had a friend who, when I was a kid, was allowed to play one sport a year because his family couldn’t afford all the registration and joining fees. So while all the other kids were playing football in fall, basketball in winter, and baseball in spring, he had to pick one. He wouldn’t have had to pick one if they were all free, or cheap. Pretty simple.

“Wait, where does the money come from??” you ask.

“Maybe you need to re-read item number one on this list,” I reply.

*****

So there it is. Why won’t this work? The short answer is: people still like McDonald’s, and don’t like exercising. Also, you’ve got to consider the same reason it’s taken us so long to start caring about the environment: people don’t think it’s a problem. In time, though, you’re going to see a rise in diabetes, bypass surgeries, national cholesterol, you name it. And maybe after that kills off enough people, or maybe after Al Gore makes an Oscar-winning power-point presentation about it, people will start paying attention. And when that time comes, I’ll be happy to lend the President my plan.