60 Years – From Treasure Island to Black Sails

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sixty years ago, back in 1959, I read my first book, Treasure Island. Actually, my mother read it with me. I was seven and in the third grade. It was around Halloween because I went to a costume party dressed as Long John Silver. I’m not sure, but my faulty memory tells me I picked Treasure Island to read because I had seen the 1934 movie version on television, the one with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. I have reread the book and seen the old movie many times since. They are burned into my memory.

Sixty years later, in 2019 I’m watching a TV series called Black Sails (2014-2017) that features several characters that share names with characters in Treasure IslandLong John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and Ben Gunn. The producers of the show consider it a prequel to the novel. If you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many filmed versions of Treasure Island it hardly matters, but if you have, knowing the character’s future adds to the fun of watching the show. To make the show even more delicious, many of the other characters are based on historical people from the Golden Age of Pirates.

Black Sails is not your typical pirate movie (well an extended TV series of 4 seasons with a total of 38 episodes). Black Sails spends most of its time developing characters and a complicated plot arc. Sure, it has sea battles, sword fights, treasure chests, and waving skull and crossbones, but it’s mostly about business. Pirate captains are elected. They keep their leadership only as long as their bookkeeper keeps them in the black. Pirates steal on the high seas but fence their booty in Nassau which is resold in the American colonies. Everyone is concerned with their own bottom line. Nassau belongs to England but its colonial governors are always corrupted. The main theme of the story is how some pirates and some Englishmen want to make Nassau legit like the other colonies.

Captain Flint and Long John Silver

Black Sails does feature a great deal of sex and violence, including plenty of full-frontal nudity, swearing, and gore, so it’s not for children like the original Treasure Island. But it’s also been modernized with several significant roles for women. None of the women characters are from Treasure Island and only one is from history (Anne Bonny).

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is dishonest, violent, and likable. That’s true of the John Silver character in Black Sails. Captain Flint is a vastly complex character in the show, even its main character, but Captain Flint was just alluded to in Stevenson’s novel, and generally for his monstrous reputation. Black Sails spends much of its time giving Captain Flint a backstory. Billy Bones was not very likable in the book but is very likable in the television show.

Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold were real pirates, and it’s worth following their links to read about them at Wikipedia. It’s also worth reading about the Republic of Pirates that the show builds upon that worked out of Nassau, and the pirate code of conduct. These six links will provide a significant history needed to truly appreciate what the show succeeds at doing.

Over my lifetime I’ve become acquainted with many fictional characters that have been legendary or mythic, ones which are constantly recreated and enlarged – Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Jo Marsh, Elizabeth Bennet – so that Black Sails is giving more life to Long John Silver. I like that. Maybe because he’s the character I’ve known the longest.

JWH

My New TV

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 20, 2019

I’ve been meaning to buy a new television since 2017. My wife and friends have been making fun of me for two years of indecisiveness. My wife stopped going to Best Buy with me. Two years ago my Samsung DLP TV was ten years old and I had just replaced its expensive lamp for the third time. I decided then I needed a new TV. I got on the net and began researching televisions, sucking me into a black hole of technical comparisons.

Wednesday I went to Best Buy determined to make a choice. I walked into the store thinking it was either the LG B8 or Sony 900F, but I wasn’t sure of which size. As soon as I started looking at the TV sets I was overwhelmed with more enticing choices and bargains. I went from one TV to the next thinking each could be the one. Finally, I was looking at the Sony 900F for the nth time when the demo video showed my favorite cat video. I took that as a sign from God and whipped out my Visa card. I’m an atheist, but sometimes even us atheists need divine guidance.

At the cash register, I almost changed my mind to an LG LED 75″ TV. It was the same price but gigantic! It’s picture looked gorgeous too, but I remembered no reviews of it at Rtings.com. I’m glad I didn’t change my mind. Unboxing the 65″ Sony required asking my friend Mike to come over and help. These flat screen TVs are much lighter than the old CRTs, but the Sony weighed 36kg (79.4 lbs). Even after we got it installed it’s taken two more days to get it configured with my other devices.

Modern TVs aren’t like the TV I grew up with in the 1950s. The only cable it came with was the power cord. It had two dials on the side, one for changing channels (there were three stations to select from 12 possible numbers) and an on-off/volume knob. There were two adjustments in the back for the vertical and horizontal holds. The Sony came with several manuals, a clicker with about 20 buttons, and inputs for about a dozen cables. I needed to make it work with my receiver, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray player, and iPhone, configuring it for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, DirecTV Now, HBO Go, Spotify, Curiosity Stream, and PBS app.

It took over an hour to figure out how to get the 900F to automatically play sound through my receiver. Through reading both the TV and receiver manuals I discovered I had compatible ARC HDMI ports on each that were designed to handle sound this way. The trouble was there was one menu choice deep in the receiver’s menu system that needed to be turned on first. It took me another 30 minutes to get the receiver’s setup menu to display on the TV.

I finally got everything working after a day’s hard work. But things still don’t work consistently. Sometimes my Roku comes on and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m still not sure the exact sequence of buttons to push. My receiver has 6 HDMI inputs and outputs just one HDMI cable to the TV’s ARC HDMI port. But for some reason, the TV senses both the Roku and Blu-ray player and tries to switch to a different HDMI port. Evidently, modern audio/visual devices talk to each other, but they don’t always understand each other’s lingo.

I might be the only person in my house who can turn on my TV and get to a program. I should have earned 3 college credits.

I knew I’d have problems. Before getting the Sony 900F my old setup had 6 clickers. I had considered buying a TCL 6 Series with a built-in Roku player just to reduce the number of remotes. Life with our electronic friends should be simpler.

Whatever TV manufacturer who can design a self-contained TV set that does everything right with just one clicker should achieve market dominance. We don’t need 3D, curved screens, or any kind of new high-tech whiz-bang features. What people want is ease-of-use.

The main problem with modern TVs is sound. The large flat screen pictures are fantastic, but to pair those glorious images with equally fantastic sound takes a bunch of extra equipment. And all smart TVs with the exception of Roku TVs can’t match the wonders of the Roku UI. And I still have DVD/BD discs I want to play. Android TV or WebOS user interfaces are no match for the Roku (or even Amazon Fire).

TVs should be either dumb monitors that we connect to our favorite components or self-contained boxes. I’d say the perfect TV for most people would be a 55″ Roku TV with near great sound and a slot for DVD/BD discs. That setup would require just one clicker. No one sells that kind of TV though.

My new system has one less clicker only because I’ve jettisoned the Fire TV. To use my new TV requires these clickers:

    • Sony 900F
    • Denon AVR-X1000
    • Roku Ultra
    • Samsung BD
    • TiVo Roamio

Susan once bought me one of those expensive universal clickers, but I didn’t like it. And I can use apps for some of these clickers on my iPhone. However, I find it easier just to keep a pile of remotes by my chair.

I keep hoping to find ways to simplify my electronic life. We could abandon the TiVo if we could find a way to record and stream Jeopardy and a few other OTA shows. We still play DVDs and Blu-rays, but when the era of physical media is over, that will make TV watching life much easier. If Sony’s Android TV had all the TV channels/apps that Roku does, that would eliminate another device. Too bad Sony isn’t a Roku TV.

Getting rid of the receiver is the hardest. Sony’s internal speakers are good enough for daily TV, but not for music and movies. The big problem is Spotify. I love that I can control Spotify on my iPhone but play it through the Roku and receiver to my big speakers. The album covers appear on the TV screen as I listen to the music. The ultimate TV would have a built-in receiver/amp that connected wirelessly to surround sound speakers. The new Wisa standard might provide that but it will require buying all new equipment.

Once I got my new TV set up I tried out all kinds of movies and television shows to see how it looks. 4K shows look amazing, but to be honest I can’t really tell that much difference from 1080p. What really jumped out is Perry Mason. The old black and white TV show on DVD looked stunning on the 65″ TV. Plus old movies on TCM like Red Dust from the 1930s are way more impressive. Just seeing more details in the sets makes old movies feel remastered. I don’t have a 4K Blu-ray player, but 1080p Blu-ray looks razor sharp.

As far as I can tell TV standards reached a “Good Enough” pinnacle at 1080p.

Our Planet is stunning. I upped my Netflix account to handle 4K and HDR. I’m not sure I need 4K or HDR because I’ve yet to discern what they actually do over 1080p shows without HDR. It’s not the quantum jump from DVD to BD, or SDTV to HDTV. Maybe my old eyes just can’t distinguish such fine distinctions.

Here’s the first TV I remember. I think it’s Christmas 1956 and I’m five.

1955q 58th Court

JWH

CBS All Access – A Failed New TV Paradigm

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 9, 2019

Watching TV shows has gone through a number of paradigm shifts.

  1. Broadcast – watch a limited set of shows by a schedule – free
  2. Cable – watch expanded lists of shows by a schedule – costly
  3. VCR – watch shows by your schedule – the clutter of tapes
  4. DVR – watch shows by your schedule – no clutter
  5. Streaming – watch shows on demand without a schedule
  6. DVD – collect and own shows
  7. Library – watch shows without owning media. This is where CBS All Access fails.

Recently I decided to watch every episode of Perry Mason from start to finish. Here’s how it would have worked under each paradigm.

Broadcast: Back in the 1950s if I wanted to watch every episode of Perry Mason I needed to be at my TV set each week and it would have taken nine years to finish. Eventually, it was syndicated and I could have caught all the shows if I was diligent.

Cable: Starting in the 1970s, cable brought back many old shows, sometimes airing them multiple times a day. It became easier to eventually catch every episode of a TV series, but it still took months.

VCR: With a videotape machine it was possible to let the machine do the watching on the schedule, and then binge watch when in the mood. A big step forward, but the video quality of videotape was never very good, and managing all those tapes was a pain in the ass.

DVR: Recording to a hard drive was much nicer than messing with tapes. However, DVRs limited the number of shows you could keep on hand. I was watching Perry Mason on my TiVo last year recording the shows off of MeTV. But I could only keep so many without filling up my drive. This was a hybrid of broadcast/DVR that wasn’t really satisfactory because I don’t get good reception, and I couldn’t keep the shows.

Streaming:  I don’t remember Perry Mason ever being on Hulu or Netflix, but it could have been. Watching old TV shows via streaming depends on which service has the rights to stream at the moment. Shows don’t stay permanently on any single streaming service but jump around.

DVD: I could have bought the entire Perry Mason series on DVDs. But I’ve gotten so I hate owning crap, so I figured I’d give CBS All Access a try.

Library: When I first heard about CBS All Access it seemed to promise access to every TV show CBS ever broadcast. I assumed if there were enough CBS shows I wanted to watch like Perry Mason it might be worth paying them $10 a month for life so I wouldn’t have to buy DVD sets of everything. They are starting to pile up, and I really don’t want to be a DVD librarian. CBS All Access appealed to me as a permanent streaming library of shows I could depend on.

But CBS All Access has failed me. It doesn’t offer anything like all the shows it broadcast, and its Perry Mason collection is only partial. I thought it had the first 5 seasons. I subscribed thinking maybe by the time I watched those five seasons it will have added seasons 6-9. Then I discovered in season 2 they were skipping episodes. I know this is terribly anal of me, but that bummed me out. My goal was to watch every episode in order and yesterday I came to a roadblock at Season 2 Episode 18. Damn!

CBS apparently wants to compete with the Netflix model. But there’s only so many streaming services that I can afford. CBS All Access doesn’t have the massive catalog that Netflix has, nor does it have anywhere near the number of original programming shows. It can’t be Netflix. But I thought it might be a new paradigm. A large library of complete TV shows that never changed. Instead of buying several DVD sets of complete series, I was hoping that CBS Access would have enough shows to keep me busy for years and let me feel I had a permanent library of shows to access at will.

I often read about an episode of a TV show and want to watch it. I thought CBS All Access would be a new paradigm of TV, a permanent library of TV shows I could reference at ease.

CBS All Access fails at this potential new paradigm. Here are some of the CBS shows I expected to see in its permanent library – the ones I remember from growing up:

As I get older I feel a nostalgic need to watch old shows now and then. My TV watching fell off after 1970. There were many later CBS shows I’d love to see again, like Northern Exposure, but I don’t feel like going through 1971-2019 TV seasons on Wikipedia to find them. But this gives an adequate sample list of what I expected from CBS All Access.

It should have been called CBS Partial Access. Here’s what I wished CBS had offered:

CBS Television and Library – $9.99/month

  • Live Broadcast mode – with commercials
  • Binge Watching mode – complete series without commercials
  • Time Travel mode – Pick and date and time and watch shows from that date with original commercials, including news programs.

JWH

 

What Do the TV Shows I’m Addicted to Say About Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Have you ever wondered what our lives would be like without television? Television is like the proverbial sixth that lets us see and hear across space and time. We could have used television technology to extend the reach of our eyes and ears to real-time events in reality. My wife spends endless hours watching an eagle’s nest in Florida, but few people watch live cams. Most of us watch recorded shows. Either fiction or nonfiction. And as much as I love documentaries and news programs, my real TV addiction has been to fictional shows.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather odd that we have this technology to spy on reality across the globe but we prefer inputting make-believe into our eyes and ears instead? I can only assume watching our favorite television shows is a rejection of reality.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not about to tell you to stop watching television. I’ve had a lifelong addiction to television and there’s little chance I’m going to give it up now. I do feel I’ve gotten my TV habit under control though. I only watch 2-3 hours a day, and one of those hours is my routine of watching the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy with my wife Susan. For the first ten years of our marriage, we spent primetime together every night, but we’ve slowly drifted apart preferring other shows.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I remember watching television every evening with my family. I had my favorite shows I looked forward to each week, but I wasn’t obsessed with watching every episode. Beginning this century with complete seasons on DVD or streaming an entire series from the first episode to last, I’ve developed the habit of binge-watching completed series from the past. Now that feels like an addiction. Looking back I realize my TV viewing habits have changed many times since 1955. That’s when I remember watching my first TV show.

I’m realizing what I’ve been doing recently is going back over a lifetime of television watching and picking out certain shows to watch every episode in order. Here’s are the shows I’m currently working my way through:

Now, this does not cover any of the dozens of TV shows from the 21st-century that I’ve watched every episode as they came out.

I keep asking myself why I’m drawn to those old TV programs when we have the latest shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, CBS All-Access, The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Acorn TV to watch.

I keep thinking I need to psychoanalyze myself. I accept TV watching as my addiction, but I keep wondering why I pick the stories that I do. Most nights I flip through all the new offerings and end up watching either Perry Mason or Route 66. These shows give me the most pleasure at the moment. And it’s not necessarily nostalgia because I didn’t watch them when they first ran. Oh, I saw a couple episodes back then, but I was too young to appreciate them. My ten-year-old head was into Dobie Gillis and The Flintstones back then.

While Susan is in the living watching her shows late at night, I’m watching old black and white TV shows from the late 1950s. There’s a certain surreal quality to that. I feel like I’m channeling my parents who would have been in their forties at the time. These were their favorite shows. Or maybe I’m channeling the whole era from when I was growing up.

If watching TV is rejecting reality, then watching old TV is rejecting modern reality and the alternate reality of modern TV shows. There’s a weirdness to that. Think about it, TV is how we turn off our senses to the present and provide an alternative input. Why am I feeding my brain 60-year-old TV shows? What does that say about myself? And if I also admit to focusing on reading science fiction short stories from the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve got to wonder about my connection to the present.

It’s telling we prefer fiction to reality, but isn’t it also revealing what kinds of fiction we prefer for our substitute of reality?

Last night Susan and I made a Spotify playlist to share where we only added songs we both loved. Most of them were from the 1960s and 1970s. Tomorrow night we’re going out on the coldest night of the year and pay for high-priced movie tickets to watch The Wizard of Oz from 1939 on the big screen, a movie I got addicted to as a kid from its yearly showing on TV.

(By the way, I’m not completely out of touch with modern pop culture. I’ve already seen 6 of the 8 Best Picture Oscar nominations for this year, and will probably see the other two before the Oscars are revealed. I’ve lost touch with modern music, but I’m going to be really worried about myself when I no longer keep up with movies too.)

JWH

 

 

Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH

 

Does Perry Mason Follow the Rules for Detective Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 29, 2018

In my last post, I wrote about becoming addicted to Perry Mason. The trouble is I’m not a murder mystery fan, so I’m clueless when it comes to analyzing the clues. I’ve never guessed whodunit while watching Perry Mason. In fact, I often feel cheated when the murderer confesses because it seems like the writers kept them mostly offstage, and Perry doesn’t give us the important clues until the end of the show when he’s explaining his logic to Della and Paul. We seldom see the murderer conviving.

Because Perry Mason won nearly all the 271 cases presented in the nine seasons of the show, I know not to suspect his clients. The show certainly would be a great deal more fun if Hamilton Burger won at least a quarter of the cases or even a third. By some accounts, Mason only lost three cases, but even those are iffy. Watching a formulaic story is comfortable sometimes, but annoying at other times.

The creative appeal of Perry Mason is the highly contrived murders. The other night I watch “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse” which involved two women with the same name and looks. It featured a young actress Judy Tyler who had just made Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley that tragically died in a car accident not long after making the PM episode. The story was colorful and sexy, but highly contrived, while the murder and whodunit seemed more like an afterthought. In most episodes, the cleverness of how the victim was murdered seems to take a backseat to actually allowing the viewer a chance to solve the murder. To me, that’s breaking the rules.

Like I’ve said, I’ve had little experience with murder mysteries. I’ve read damn few of them, mainly a handful of novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve seen many more murder mysteries on television or at the movies, but I don’t seek them out. Now that I’ve got hooked on Perry Mason, I want to understand the art form.

I did find “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries. I tend to think the Perry Mason episodes often violates his rule number 10:

The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

I have not read the Erle Stanley Gardner books, so I can’t claim it’s his fault or the television writers when the rules are broken. And part of the problem is Perry Mason isn’t a detective but a lawyer, but he seldom lets Paul Drake his hired detective do any detecting. Reading, “I Rest My Case: Perry Mason Still Rules in the Courtroom” by J. Kingston Pierce, I get the feeling that book Perry is very different from TV Perry.

Raymond Burr is the star of the show and he gets to do all the crime solving. Because half the show is usually in the courtroom, we get a mix of a detective story with a courtroom drama. Everything moves fast, and it often feels like the writers are pulling a sleight-of-hand trick at the end. This doesn’t keep me from watching, though. Maybe the appeal of the show is to recreate the logic in the post-show analysis.

I know Perry Mason is an extremely well-loved television show, but I think it could have been much better. I feel it often breaks the rules for writing detective fiction. It makes Perry invincible which makes Paul and Della feel like subservient pawns in Perry’s game. I think the stories would have been superior if Paul Drake had done most of the detective work and Della had been given more of her own skills to contribute. And the stories would have had far more depth if Perry lost one-fourth of his cases to a more cunning Hamilton Berger. Plus, I think Lt. Tragg should have outsmarted Perry some of the time too. In fact, I think it would have been thrilling if the viewer sometimes got to solve cases that Perry flubbed. Or even have murderers outwit Perry. It gets tiresome waiting for Perry do all his same old tricks in each episode. I haven’t seen many episodes after season three, so maybe things change. Or maybe someone will create a new Perry Mason series.

It’s tedious to have infallible heroes. I wished Perry Mason had broken its formula writing rules and followed more closely the rules for writing whodunits. Like I said, I’m just getting into murder mysteries. I’ll start taking notes and analyzing some of the more interesting Perry Mason cases. Maybe the clues are all there and the writers are on the up-and-up, and I’m just a terrible murder mystery solver. I need to prove my case that Perry Mason breaks the rules with more specific facts, which will require deconstructing some episodes in the future.

JWH

Why Am I Binge Watching Perry Mason?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Until the success of the VCR in the second half of the 1970s fans of television shows couldn’t just watch their favorite episodes whenever they wanted. I’m not sure people born after the DVR will understand that. In the early decades of television, a show premiered in its allotted time slot, and then a subset of that season got repeated in the summer reruns. You might fall in love with a particular episode and not get to see it again for decades.

Eventually, popular shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Star Trek made it into syndication. If a fan was patient they could eventually see every episode of a series. Early adopters of VCRs took pride in collecting a complete run of their favorite shows, especially if it took years.

Nowadays fans can watch almost any show on demand. Some TV aficionados only watch a show when it has been completed or canceled so they can see the complete story on DVD or streaming. Meaning, they can watch an entire multi-year series by binge-watching for several days or weeks. After randomly watching about 50 episodes of Perry Mason on MeTV during the last year, I decided to start with season 1, episode 1 on CBS All Access and watch the entire 271 shows in order. They only have seasons 1-5, but I hope they’ll add the rest, otherwise I’ll have to buy the DVDs. (Maybe that’s their intention.)

I have to ask myself: Why Perry Mason? Even though Perry Mason is one of the most popular TV shows ever, it’s artistic quality pales compared to modern television series like Breaking Bad, Downton AbbeyThe Game of Thrones, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Often when I watch an episode of Perry Mason my mind boggles by how the plot struggles to make any kind of logical sense. And Perry, Della, and Paul are completely lacking in the kind of vivid personal details we expect in 21st-century TV shows. I’ve never liked murder mysteries, never cared whodunit, and I never guess the guilty person while watching Perry Mason. Yet at this time in my life, I find the show very addictive.

I’ve binge-watched nearly of all the most popular television series since The Sopranos so I know Perry Mason is primitive in comparison. According to Wikipedia, “Perry Mason is Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series.”  It premiered on September 21, 1957. The contrast between TV storytelling in 1957 and 2018 is startling. The evolution of creating TV shows during those years is worthy of countless Ph.D. dissertations.

The difference between television then and now is so stark, that I can’t imagine younger fans even being able to even watch Perry Mason. Except for one episode, it was filmed in gorgeous black and white. To the current generation, it would be like Baby Boomers having embraced early silent movies in their teens. So, why am I watching Perry Mason now when I could be watching countless superior shows? I think there’s something psychological I need to unearth. And it’s taking the length of a long Atlantic Monthly essay to scope out the problem. I doubt seriously if even my closest friends will want to read all of this, but I feel compelled to write out why. I need to explain it to myself.

Socrates warned us the unexamined life if not worth living. I’ve never argued with that. In the last third of life, such self-reflection seems truer than ever even for the smallest aspects of day-to-day living. Have you ever dissected your soul to find out why you love what you love? Stop a moment and think about that. Why is your gray goo wanting to substitute its current sensory input with data from a video screen? Watching television is a rejection of reality for a substitute, and maybe that isn’t bad, but it is revealing. When we tune in, turn on and drop out, what are we really doing?

Maybe you’ve been asked this deep question of why you love TV before, and maybe not. But let’s take it a little further, just a bit deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why you love to watch television with other people? Or do you? What we watch by ourselves tells us so much about ourselves, but what we watch together says so much more about our relationships. I bet you haven’t thought of that one before.

For almost a decade I’ve watched television with my friend Janis. Until this August, my wife had been working out of town all that time and Janis and I would watch shows together three or four nights a week. Janis moved to Mexico this August, something she’s been hoping to do as long as I’ve known her, and Susan finally got transferred back to Memphis. Susan and I discovered we no longer watch the same kind of shows, not like we did before 2008. Now, every evening we watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy together in the living room, and then I go to the den to watch my shows.

What’s enlightening to me is the shows I choose to watch by myself. I assumed I’d continue to watch all the popular binge-worthy shows I had been watching with Janis. But I’m not. For weeks I tried countless shows but my restless mind could not settle on any of them. I ended up watching old westerns from the 1940s and 1950s every evening.

For the last few years, whenever I’m alone watching TV, I binge on Hollywood classics, westerns, film noir, 1960s comedies, or Pre-Code Hollywood from the early 1930s. These have all been life-long favorites. They’ve also been the kinds of films my friends don’t like watching. Then I got hooked on the 1950s and 1960s television shows I hadn’t seen much of when I was young, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Fugitive. After Janis moved away I mostly watched westerns for weeks, mixed it with some Perry Mason. Strangely, all these television shows and movies are in black and white. I wonder what that means?

I’ve gone through a number of psychological changes since I retired five years ago, including how I watch television. I’ve been a TV addict since 1956, but the level of addiction and types of shows I craved have changed many times over the years. The hole in my TV watching schedule is making me think about my lifetime relationship with TV and who I watched it with.

Watching TV by myself is so different from social TV watching. Looking back, I realized I’ve mostly been a social television watcher. There have always been shows I watched by myself, but there have been more shows I watched because of other people. When I was young, I watched shows with my family. Once I got past the sixth grade, I loved watching shows with friends, either at my house or theirs. I got a job in high school in 1968 and quit watching television for many years. That ended some friendships. I seldom watched TV in my college years. As I got back into television around 1975, I began social TV watching with a new generation of friends. Then when I got married to Susan in 1978, and we found prime-time bliss. I would watch her shows and she would watch mine. When Susan move to Birmingham to keep her job, my television life fell apart. Then Janis became my TV buddy during the time that coincided with the era of binge-watching on streaming TV. We picked shows that made us want to watch two or three episodes at a time.

For the last few months, I’ve tried many new series, but my mind can’t stick with them. I keep hopping from one show to the next for about ten or fifteen minutes. Every once I a while I could find a series that would hook me like Sisters season 1 or Man in the High Castle season 3, but for the most part, I’d fall back on westerns. Then I got hooked on Perry Mason.

Remembering my television watching habits when I was 5-15 is a hazy affair. I’d love if my memories were perfect. I do have clues. I have memories of my parents always asking me what was on television even from an early age. There were only three channels back then, so I imagine it wasn’t a great feat for a kid to memorize the schedule. One of the first magazines I remember reading is the TV Guide, but I’m not sure how often we bought it, or when my mother started bringing it home from the grocery store.

What I realized now is I watched all kinds of shows back then because sometimes my parents picked them, and sometimes Becky, my sister, and I got to choose. It wasn’t until I, Spy (1965) and Star Trek (1966) that I tried to never miss an episode of a favorite show. That got interrupted in 1968 as I mentioned before when I got my first punch-the-clock job after school in the eleventh grade.

Wanting to see every episode of a television show became a real habit after Susan and I got married. We loved NBC’s Must See TV Thursday nights. Then in this century with whole season DVD sets of television shows and Netflix. Binge-watching a series from the first episode to last become a thing.

I believe part of the attraction to Perry Mason is because it’s a complete work, and available on DVD. It also appeals to me that I can buy The Perry Mason Book by Jim Davidson for my Kindle, a handy-dandy comprehensive episode-by-episode reference guide to supplement my Perry Mason watching. Even though I don’t care about whodunit in a murder mystery, I do care about what model car Paul Drake drove or where a picturesque scene is filmed. One aspect of Perry Mason I love is the location shooting from 1957-1966. The show is full of little details I find compelling.

Of course, these are piddling details. The urge to go deeper into my unconscious pushes me to find greater insight. I’ve known for years that living in the last third of light resonates with the first third. When I was young I was often disappointed with older people when they told me they were clueless about the current pop culture I valued so much. Now that I’m older I know what it means to not be able to keep up. Perry Mason is familiar territory. The beautiful black-and-white photography is comforting. All the then new cars are the ones I coveted growing up and wished I owned now as classic old cars now. Plus the women in their conical bras and tight sweaters are the prototypes of feminine beauty from my earliest memories of horniness.

Perry Mason 2Back in the 1990s I flew down to Miami and got my old buddy Connell to drive me to a house where I lived in 1955 when I was four. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my old home, the site of some of my earliest memories of playing outside. I felt like I was standing on the Big Bang beginning of my universe. Watching 1957 Perry Mason takes me very close to that origin. It’s the inflationary period when my mind began to be expanded by television.

So, what does this say about my psychology? Why do I pick a 62-year-old TV show to watch by myself at 67? If I watch TV with friends we’d watch a 2018 show. Susan too watches old TV shows by herself, but they are usually from the last decade, except for Friends. Are the shows we pick reflective of the escapism we need? Is the political incorrectness 1957 much easier to handle than political insanity of 2018?

I wonder what my friends watch by themselves and why? Is everyone sitting alone turning back the hand of time? Some people I know have the TV on all day long to keep them company. They tell me it helps with loneliness. I hate hearing a TV in the daytime. I love TV when it’s dark and late, and I’m too tired to do anything else. I realize now that I categorize my friends by which pop culture references we share. I go flicks with some friends and other films with other friends. I share old science fiction with a couple of friends, but not with the rest. My love of westerns requires hanging out with strangers on Facebook to find anyone to share that enthusiasm.

I have one friend that loves Perry Mason but we seldom see each other anymore since she was a work friend and I’m retired. She watches Perry every night at 10:30. I wish I could watch it with her. But she is younger than I, so I’m not sure we resonate with the same aspects of the show? None of my close friends will watch Perry with me. None of them like the old movies and westerns either. This got me to thinking about how our personalities are divided by what we do alone and what we do together.

I went to see Green Book with a friend after getting positive reviews from several other friends. And I know a few other folks who want to go see it. That means we’re all bonded by this one current movie. I like that. Back in my K-12 days, I’d go to school and seek out other kids who had seen the same TV shows the night before. The same thing happened during my work years.

Some people I know get their feelings hurt if you tell them you don’t like their favorite TV show. I don’t. I am disappointed sometimes when someone I like a lot won’t try a current show I love. I feel like I’m making an offer of connection, and they refuse. I don’t care if they end up hating the show. It’s the willingness to try to communicate that counts.

When I go to a party I ask people what they are watching on TV or going out to see at the movies. When I find someone who has seen what I have, and we both are crazy about the story, I actually like the person more. And if I hear a person put down a show I love, I feel like there’s a side to the person I can’t comprehend. It’s like the old generation gap – a pop culture divide.

Comparing tastes in television shows makes me realize just how different people are in my life. What we share is a kind of Venn diagram of commonality, what we don’t, defines our borders. But I wonder. Is it the shows we watch alone that define us the most, or the ones we share with each other?

JWH