Friday, July 20, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Time-Wasting TV

by Peggy Robin

Suffering from Daily Show withdrawal? Colbert-less nights? If you are a DirecTV subscriber like me, you are just another pitiful, helpless pawn in a nasty power play between giants: Viacom (owner of Comedy Central, which produces both shows) and DirecTV, the satellite dish provider, which has refused to pay the increased fare Viacom is demanding for its most popular channels.

At the start of last week Viacom pulled the plug, not just on what DirecTV subscribers could see for their money, but also on what’s available to everyone free on the internet, dragging millions of innocent bystanders (by-viewers?) into this TV satellite price war. No, “war” is the wrong metaphor -- it’s more like a game of chicken. After the first week of this showdown, Viacom has already swerved slightly, by restoring the online versions of the pulled shows. That means the Daily Show and Colbert are back up on our computer screens, available for next day viewing -- though they’re not on any mobile devices.

While the next-day web version allows me to obtain my essential daily fix of political parody, I am still left with this big hole to fill in my Monday-though-Thursday 11:30pm-to-midnight-lying-in-bed-vegging-out-to-the-TV part of my routine.

I am coping by flipping around the online channel guide to see what else is out there, and in the process, have discovered all kinds of junky stuff that can pass the time in, well, not exactly a worthwhile way, but in a way that will suffice for the purpose of ending the day without having to exercise any brainpower, which might tend to keep me awake. After more than a week of this, I have come up with a few recommendations for anyone with similar needs. (Please note that I don’t know the actual time slots of any of these shows, but have simply set my device to record them whenever they occur, so that I can watch them during what would otherwise be the Daily Show/Colbert viewing window, speeding through any commercials and repetitive intros -- and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch them any other way.)

How It’s Made. This is a half-hour show on The Science Channel that shows in mind-numbing detail how various products are manufactured. They may be useful everyday things –pencils, contact lenses, or aluminum foil-- or things you may seldom see and never use yourself -- Meerschaum pipes, or racing yachts. The parts may be made on an assembly line or lovingly hand-stitched, painted and crafted by an artist. Depending on the random subject and its particular interest to you, the show can be either exquisitely boring or unexpectedly compelling. It’s usually weirdly entertaining, however, and the soundtrack has consistently sleep-inducing rhythms. Rating: 5 stars for narcotic effect, 3 stars for educational value, and 3 stars on the guilty pleasure scale. See:

Build It Bigger. Similar to How It’s Made, but on a macro level, with all the focus on the creation of monumental works of engineering. For example, now I know everything I could possibly want to know about the design and construction of London’s massive new Olympic Aquatic Center, from how each one of the thousands of ceramic tiles are cut and glued into place, to how the concrete supports are positioned to hold up the record-breaking, wave-shaped 120,000 square-foot aluminum-clad roof. The show features not just the architects and engineers but the construction workers and pipe fitters and guys who drive the forklifts. Watching the show is like being a kid again, playing with Tonka trucks, except that you don’t need to move anything but your eyeballs. Other recent topics include the building of the world’s biggest airport,  Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India, and the groundbreaking technology of Australia’s Wonthaggi Ocean Water Desalination Plant, two hours south of Melbourne. 4 stars for narcotic effect, 4 for educational value, 3 for guilty pleasure. See:

Good Eats. This show on the Food Network is both a history of food and a hands-on cooking show, and its host, Alton Brown, is both a scientist and a TV food guy. He takes you through the history of, for example, coffee, and at the same time teaches you how to brew the perfect cup. He’s done the same for asparagus, pickles, tofu – in 14 seasons, you name the food and he’s covered it. The last one I saw was for the sugar-and-fat-filled doughnut, so be warned: If thinking about or seeing tempting treats prepared will keep you up at night, this show may rate low on the narcotic effect scale. Let’s give it a single star in that category, but a 4 for educational value, and another 4 for guilty pleasure.  See:

Off Limits. This hour-long show on the Travel Channel takes you to someplace familiar to tourists –the street grid of Manhattan, a sightseeing gondola up a mountain, the Las Vegas Strip—and shows you around from an unknown perspective. You are taken into the inner workings, the secret underground, the parts that only repair crews get to see – and sometimes you can’t help thinking, “I wish I hadn’t seen so much.”  How much do you really want to know about water seepage from Manhattan’s streets into the tunnels of the IRT?  Sometimes it can be useful to be behind the scenes: Once you see how baggage handlers deal with your luggage, you’ll never let an unmarked bag leave your hands at an airport again. Depending on the subject matter, this show ranges from a 2 – 5 for narcotic effect, 3 for educational value, and a 1 for guilty pleasure (no reason to feel guilty about it, really).  See:

Mythbusters. Now we’re talking both solid educational value and true guilty pleasure. Each week a team of special effects experts run experiments to see if they can replicate something shown in the movies on Youtube or commonly believed.  For example, if you were being chased across rooftops, and you jumped into a garbage dumpster, would you survive? Could the ejector seat in James Bond’s car actually work to eject a bad guy? Are redheads really more sensitive to pain than other people? Did the ancient Greeks design an arrow machine gun that actually worked? (Answers to each in order: Yes, provided that the rooftop was just a couple of stories high and you jumped into a dumpster filled with mattresses; yes, but the force needed to eject the seat with the bad guy in it would explode the  whole inside of the car, killing James Bond at the same time; no, their measurable reactions are no different from people with other hair colors; and yes, it’s quite plausible that the ancient Greeks could have made such a weapon. There are *nine years* worth of episodes exploring such questions on the Discovery Channel, which reruns them all the time. While the narcotic value of the show is low --maybe a 2 or even a 1, due to all the noise of things firing and exploding and crashing—the educational value is a 5, along with an equally high guilty pleasure rating. See:

Sand Masters. This is the best all-around winner. A team of 5 or 6 professional sand sculptors (yes, you got that right—there are people who make a full-time living by playing in the sand) each week accept a challenge to design and build a mammoth sand sculpture, using up to 60 tons of sand and reaching a height of up to 15 feet.  In one episode, they built a replica of the chateau of a Napa Valley winery, fronted by a pyramid of wine glasses, and including a sculpture of a giant champagne bottle, with a real pressurized cork that at a touch of a button, popped off, triggering a siphon to pour real champagne into the glasses. For the circus episode, they scupted a life-size ringmaster, with horses, tigers, and acrobats, unveiled with real fireworks shooting off behind the whole shebang. Every episode is full of drama and suspense: Will it rain? Will the sand get too dry and crumbly, bringing down the arch? Will someone get cut with a sand tool and bleed all over the sculpture? It’s a 5 for narcotic value, because, after you watch a few shows, you realize they’re all alike, and everything always works out in the end, but in the meantime, the detail work of a bunch of people chipping away at a giant pile of sand is actually extremely sleep-inducing. The educational value is a 3, due mainly to the exotic location of each episode, which includes a quick cultural and historical tour. And it certainly earns it’s 5 for guilty pleasure!  See:

If the stand-off between Viacom & DirecTV goes on much longer, I’m afraid these won’t be enough…so feel free to suggest others in the comments section below.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Fridays.

1 comment:

  1. If you enjoy British humor, try the new ALL BRITISH programming now shown on Channel 26-2.
    At 11:30 pm: Are You Being Served
    At 12:00 a.m. 'alloo 'alloo

    Both VERY funny.