TV today: Too much of a good thing

Yesterday, I was shocked to learn of the apparent admission of guilt by Robert Durst. The admission was startling news all by itself. What was even more incredible was the source of the news: not a newspaper’s or government’s investigation, but a six-part documentary on HBO, titled The Jinx.

Unfortunately for me, I had not been watching this show — despite having seen excellent early reviews. As a result, I didn’t get to experience the “gut-wrenching” surprise in the finale of what the New York Times described as “appointment television.”

Truth be told, I watch a good deal of television, including shows on HBO. I am always on the lookout for new shows worth watching. So why did I decide to skip over The Jinx?

There’s no mystery here. The answer is that, with all the shows I am currently watching, my viewing tank is constantly on the verge of spilling over. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to put new additions on hold. I have a list of shows waiting to replace ones as they conclude their run or that I have otherwise decided to abandon. To override the list, and simply add another show to my routine, requires that I consider if I can (or should) be squeezing out yet more time for television each week. The answer is usually: No. Such was the case with The Jinx.

Here’s how bad (or good?) it is right now:

I’m in the middle of relishing the showdown between Raylon Givens and Boyd Crowder in the final season of Justified. Having recently managed to work my way through all the episodes of Breaking Bad, I am now following Better Call Saul (which, by the way, had a truly standout episode last week, with its back story on Mike Ehrmantraut). I’m also mini-binging on the latest season of House of Cards (I’m half-way through the season, which has so far been the weakest of the three). I’ve watched the first two episodes of The Honourable Woman (it looks promising and I expect to get back to more episodes soon). I’m beginning the second season of Broadchurch, with two episodes currently logged on my DVR. And, I am a bit embarrassed to admit, I am still sticking with The Blacklist, despite its increasingly absurd and nonsensical plots.

My annual foray to Downton Abbey ended a few weeks ago. I watch Abbey, together with Madame Secretary and Grey’s Anatomy, primarily because my wife likes these shows and it gives us some things to watch together (except for Broadchurch, she doesn’t watch any of the shows listed in the previous paragraph). That’s not to say her favorites are a sacrifice for me. They are respectable entertainment and I enjoy them. In the same way, my wife and I are wading our way through The Good Wife. We started with Season 1 a few months ago and are now almost done with Season 3. Definitely fun.

Waiting in the wings are five more series I’ve watched in previous seasons: Mad Men, Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, True Detective and Sherlock. I eagerly anticipate their returns. Next fall, there will be the resumption of the rejuvenated Homeland.

What about that waiting list I mentioned?

Sitting at the top are Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead and The Americans. I hope to find room for at least one of these series sometime this summer. Meanwhile, my wife is toying with adding one of Shonda Rhimes other two shows: Scandal or (more likely) How to Get Away With Murder. The Affair won the Golden Globe for best Dramatic TV Series and Fargo won for Best Miniseries; I’d like to find time to check both of them out. Lower down but still on the list are numerous other shows that have piqued my interest, most notably The Fall and The Following.

And I promise to someday start watching The Wire, which many of my friends claim is the best series ever on television.

There are also the very occasional one-and-done specials or mini-series, such as Olive Kitteridge, that I have made time to watch. At least these do not require the ongoing commitment of a regular series — which can mean watching as many as 23 episodes a year for six seasons or more.

If only that was the end. It’s not. Those sadistic television programmers keep adding new shows to vie for my attention. Recently spotted on my new show radar is Empire, the first break-out hit of 2015 — reviving a sagging lineup on Fox. Also lighting up with potential are American Crime and Bloodline.

Some shows do occasionally finish up, making room for ones on the waiting list. Last year it was True Blood and The Newsroom. This year it’s Justified and Mad Men.

This is not a complete list of every series I’ve recently watched or hope to watch. But it’s getting close.

With the exception of The Jinx (a documentary mini-series), all of these shows are scripted dramas. These are clearly the meat and potatoes of my television watching. I’ve pretty much given up on comedies — although I have sporadically watched old episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Sports Night. I also have some interest in Modern Family, Silicon Valley and Shameless.

Surely, there’s a lot of garbage still on television (just check out almost any reality show as proof). But the best that television has to offer these days is absolutely the best that television has ever offered. We are truly in a golden age of quality programming. Plus, with on-demand options for almost every show now on the air — and venues such as Netflix and iTunes for catching up with shows no longer running — there’s never been a better environment for watching television.

And there-in lies the rub. I mentioned more than 30 dramatic series in this column. Granted, they aren’t all airing new episodes right now. Still, keeping up with all of them sometimes feels more like a job (albeit an enjoyable one) than a leisure activity. That’s the “paradox of choice” with television these days. It’s so good, with so many great series, that no one (certainly not me) has the time to savor everything worthwhile that’s out there.

And, returning to the top of this column, that’s the long answer for why I didn’t, to my regret, watch The Jinx. Of course, although I now know the surprise ending, I can still view the show via HBO Go. Which I intend to do.

One more thing…if you have a recommendation for some great show for me to watch, one not included here, please don’t tell me. Thanks, but I already have too much of a good thing.

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Here’s to the crazy ones: Apple Watch Edition

If you’re planning on buying a gold Apple Watch Edition, you either have to be rich or crazy. Preferably, a bit of both.

With a starting price of $10,000 and rapidly going up to $17,000, this is not something you buy because you’re lusting after Apple’s latest gadget. If it’s the technology you want, even the cheapest Apple Watch will do. The truth is every Apple Watch has identical internal components and an identical face. There is not one thing you can do with a gold Apple Watch — other than admire its color — that you can’t do with the considerably cheaper ($350-$1100) other models.

So who will — or who should — consider buying a gold Apple Watch?

 

Rolex

To answer that question, first let’s ask a more general one: Why buy any expensive luxury watch?

First off, it’s clear there is a market for these watches. Let’s take Rolex for example. These watches come in a range of models and prices, with a likely median around $10,000. Despite the low oxygen levels at these altitudes, estimates I have read indicate that Rolex sells several hundred thousand watches each year!

Admittedly, that number is not impressive in comparison to something like iPhone sales. But no one expects that level of sales for a luxury item. It’s a successful niche market, much like the one for luxury cars.

So who are these people? It obviously helps to be rich. If you have enough money that $10K for you is like $100 for the rest of us, you can buy a Rolex and not care what it costs. But you don’t have to be that rich to justify a luxury watch. People who are merely well-off (but far from the top 1%) might decide to splurge on one. Such people might spend upwards of $10,000 on a big vacation, for example. They could decide they’d rather have a Rolex and skip the vacation. For what it’s worth, I fit comfortably into this category. I’m certainly not a member of the super-rich, but I could buy a Rolex tomorrow without experiencing any financial strain.

But I wouldn’t do so — because I don’t place any value on having such an expensive timepiece. I can get an attractive watch that’s well built and keeps accurate time for far less money. And that’s all I want or need. I’d almost be afraid to wear a Rolex, for fear it would get lost or stolen.

Still, I can imagine at least four rationales for someone else opting to buy a luxury watch:

Materials. The metal is solid gold. And that costs big bucks. If you are into gold jewelry, this may be where you want your discretionary income to go.

• Craftsmanship. As this website explains, Rolex watches are not stamped out like the ones you buy at Target. If you value the care that goes into making a fine watch, you may want a Rolex.

Status. Like Gucci or Prada, Rolex is a status brand name. People are willing to pay extra to obtain that status. A lot extra.

Longevity. Luxury watches are designed to last. They can become heirlooms that get passed down for generations. Amortized over such a long period of time, $10K may not wind up being so expensive. And if you ever decide to sell, a “used” Rolex will likely retain a good portion of its value.

Apple Watch Edition

Okay. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s return to the original question: Why spend $10K or more to get a luxury version of the Apple Watch?

Again, if you’re so wealthy that cost is irrelevant, there’s no point in asking this question. So let’s eliminate these people from the discussion. What about the rest?

For the rest, I simply can’t see a good case for getting one. That’s why I say you have to be a bit crazy to buy a gold Apple Watch.

Of the four rationales I cited above, only one clearly applies to the Apple Watch Edition: Materials. It’s made out of gold. That’s it.

As for craftsmanship, as I already said, the Watch itself is identical no matter which one you get. Actually, at its Media Event, Apple made a bigger deal about the craftsmanship that went into the aluminum and stainless steel models (with videos about each one) than the gold model.

As for status, I don’t anticipate any great status in wearing an Apple Watch Edition. To the contrary, I can imagine people discreetly scoffing at the wearer, thinking how foolish for the person to believe that the Apple Watch is commensurate with a Rolex as a status symbol.

As for longevity, that’s the worst rationale of all. The Apple Watch is not designed to get passed on to heirs. Far from it. It’s not even designed to keep it yourself for more than about 5 years. Think about it a moment. The original iPhone came out in 2007. I bet there aren’t 10 people on the planet that are still using one as their primary smartphone. I expect the technology of the Apple Watch to advance at a similar pace. A few years from now, when Apple Watch 4 is out, the one you might buy next month will be hopelessly obsolete, almost archaic. This means you will almost be required to get a new one. It also means that the resale value of your old watch will have plummeted.

Paying $10K for a watch once is one thing. Paying it again and again every few years is something else entirely.

There is one silver (gold?) lining here. I suspect that you will be able to re-use your original band when you upgrade to a new version of the Watch (at least until Apple completely redesigns the form factor). Ideally, you will also be able to buy a Watch without a band. This will save you considerable money. But it will still be ridiculously expensive to upgrade.

To be fair, Apple isn’t planning on selling many of these gold watches. Tim Cook announced at the media event that they will have only “limited availability.” Wise decision.

Bottom line: Unless you are rich and crazy, and assuming you want an Apple Watch at all, stick with the cheaper Apple Watches this year. This is especially so when it isn’t yet clear how compelling the product will be or how much you will value it. If you wind up loving the watch, and you have the cash to spare, you can always go for the gold Apple Watch next year.

Note: The only person I know who owns a Rolex is Dave Hamilton — and I just saw that he posted his own similar thoughts on the gold Apple Watch.

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Putting it together: MacBook, USB-C and the iPad Pro

Apple’s new MacBook made an impressive debut at yesterday’s Apple Media Event. With features such as a 2304 x 1440 Retina display, Force Touch trackpad, and fanless design, it lives up to Apple’s billing as an innovative “reinvention” of a state-of-the-art laptop computer.

Still, despite dropping the Air suffix from its name, the new 12-inch laptop is a very close relative of the Air — both in appearance and target audience. On the other hand, the MacBook is so light (just two pounds) and so thin (24% thinner than an 11-inch MacBook Air) that its truest competitor may turn out to be the iPad Air rather than the MacBook Air.

Reinforcing this iPad matchup, the new MacBook comes in the same assortment of three colors (silver, space gray and gold) as do Apple’s iPads. And (as with all iOS devices and unlike Apple’s other laptops), the new Macbook has no custom configuration options.

USB-C

There’s one more iPad similarity. And it’s a big one: The MacBook has only one port for wired connections (not counting an audio-out jack)! Really. Just one. That’s down from four (2 USB, 1 Thunderbolt, and a power port) in the MacBook Air. The new port even looks like an iOS Lightning port. But it’s not. It’s an entirely new, never-before-seen-on-an-Apple-device port called USB-C. This USB-C connection supports charging, USB 3.1 Gen 1 and DisplayPort 1.2. It does it all, as they say.

My first reaction to this news was: “What? Only one? Even if Apple wanted just one type of port, couldn’t they at least have included two of them?” That way you could charge a MacBook and have an external drive attached at the same time. As it now stands, unless you get an inevitable third-party USB-C hub, you can only do one of these things at a time.

And no Thunderbolt? This means you can’t connect a MacBook to Apple’s Thunderbolt display — an option that had been strongly promoted by Apple just a couple of year’s ago.

I was ready to conclude this whole USB-C thing was a serious misstep on Apple’s part. And it may yet prove to be so. But, more likely, it is Apple once again staying ahead of the curve, pushing the envelope, or whatever similar analogy you prefer. Remember when the iMac first came out, without any floppy drive? People said it was a huge mistake. But it turned out to be prescient. This is Apple doing the same thing.

First, given the target audience for this Mac, which is the low end of the market, the limitations of a lone USB-C port are likely to be less than they may appear. For example, prospective MacBook owners are not the sort to purchase a Thunderbolt Display. That’s more for the MacBook Pro crowd.

More importantly, with the new MacBook, Apple is pushing us towards a world when all connections will be wireless — either to other local wireless devices or over the Internet to the cloud. Want to back up your MacBook? Connect it wirelessly to a Time Capsule. Want a larger display? Use AirPlay to mirror your display to a television. Want to store your super-large music and photo libraries? Use iCloud.

iPad Pro?

Let’s return to the iPad/MacBook similarity. Rumors continue to circulate that Apple will be releasing a 12-inch iPad Pro later this year. Does such a device still make sense, given the arrival of this new MacBook?

Personally, I much prefer an iPad to a laptop for many tasks. There are many times when I find iOS apps and a touchscreen more convenient and more practical than Mac app alternatives and an intrusive physical keyboard. Want to read the New York Times, check the weather, read a Kindle book, play a game, listen to a podcast? The iPad is the better choice. When I am home, I use my iPad Air almost exclusively, while my MacBook Pro gathers dust (I have a desktop Mac for tasks that the Air doesn’t handle well).

The iPad Air also beats even this latest MacBook in terms of weight and size — by a wide margin: the iPad is half the weight and almost half the thickness of the MacBook.

Overall, I don’t see the new MacBook significantly affecting sales of the iPad Air or mini.

A supposed iPad Pro is a different story. An iPad Pro will presumably be targeted for “productivity” tasks that are the traditional domain of laptops — tasks where you typically prefer a physical keyboard. The new MacBook will give an iPad Pro a run for its money here. Even if you could “get by” with just an iPad Pro, a MacBook (with the more powerful and flexible OS X) will be the better choice for getting work done.

Bottom line: Many people will still prefer to own some combination of iOS device(s) and Mac(s). I certainly will. But it’s hard to imagine users opting for both a new MacBook and an iPad Pro. It will be one or the other. And the new MacBook is more likely to be the winner. That’s why I am beginning to have serious doubts about the viability of an iPad Pro. The new MacBook may kill the device before it’s even born.

One final thought: If an iPad Pro is coming…might it come with a USB-C port instead of (or more likely in addition to) a Lightning port? If so, this would allow the Pro to offer an assortment of productivity options not currently possible with existing iPads.

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The Oscars vs. the public

Although it’s still one of the highest rated shows on television, last week’s Academy Awards garnered its lowest ratings in six years, down about 16% from last year alone. Some (including myself) see this as a reflection of how terrible the show is — with monotonous acceptance speeches for little-understood categories (like Best Sound Mixing), tacky musical numbers that seem to have arrived via a time warp from another century and an emcee whose attempts at humor fall embarrassingly flat.

But hey, the Oscars (with few exceptions) have always been like that — even when they got much higher ratings. We watched anyway — because we wanted to gawk at the stars, learn the winners of the “big” awards as soon as they were announced and perhaps get to savor an unexpected memorable moment or two.

Lastly, we hoped to see our favorite films get rewarded with a statuette. And herein lies a critical “problem” with the Oscars, at least as cited by many pundits. As noted by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes in a New York Times article, the Best Picture winner, Birdman, collected only about $11 million in ticket sales between the time it was nominated and the day of the awards. In contrast, American Sniper, another Best Picture nominee, took in $317 million over the same period — equalling almost as much as the combined total of the other seven nominees. Yet Sniper went home with only one award — a minor one for sound-editing.

The Oscars vs. movie-goers disparity is actually worse than the Sniper example. If you look at the top eight highest grossing movies of 2014, American Sniper is the only film on the list to have gotten a Best Picture nomination. This is not a new phenomenon. It is a trend that has been developing for years. Indeed, it is precisely what led the Academy to expand the potential list of nominees beyond its prior five movie limit. The goal was to increase the number of popular films that got nominated. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Chances are most viewers won’t see their favorite films win any awards — because their favorite films aren’t even nominated.

Cieply and Barnes’ explanation is that the Oscars “have become hopelessly detached from movie viewers…Both the Academy and the echo chamber of Hollywood’s awards-system machinery have nearly broken their connection with the movies that many millions of people buy tickets to watch.” The Academy voters have become “elitist” and “not in step with anything that is actually popular. No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time.”

I beg to to differ.

If the Academy is “elitist,” then so is almost every other institution that gives out film awards. According to IMDB, Birdman received 170 wins and 152 nominations, including several Best Picture wins and a spot on almost every critic’s Top Ten list. The only other movie with comparable credentials was Boyhood, another low-grossing Best Picture nominee. In contrast, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 1, the highest grossing film of the year, received only 1 win and 9 nominations — none of which were for Best Picture. Even American Sniper had only 8 wins and 25 nominations overall.

As I see it, the reason for this is that the Oscars, as well as most of the other awards cited by IMDB, are not based on popularity, at least not as measured by box office success. Ideally, they are determined primarily by artistic merit. These two criteria show very little overlap, especially these days. This disconnect is by no means unique to movies. You see the same thing in literature. The winners of the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer prize or Nobel prize are rarely given to books that topped the New York Times Best Sellers list.

I’m not naive. I know that politics, among other non-quality factors, contribute to an Oscar win. But it’s still fair to say that sheer popularity is not the determining factor — probably less determining now than ever before. And this is as it should be. I view the trend of recent years as a positive one. Would we rather return to a time when movies like Oliver! or Driving Miss Daisy wins Best Picture? I hope not.

Birdman may or may not be your choice for Best Picture. But it is undeniably a great film. It had terrific acting by the entire cast, creative cinematography, an inventive percussive soundtrack, topped off by an original thought-provoking screenplay. I contend that this is a film that will “last over time” — certainly much more so that most of the films that make up the top box-office winners — populated with big budget, special-effects-laden sequels and franchises like The Hunger Games, Captain America, The Hobbit and Transformers. Which film do you consider more likely to join Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Casablanca on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest films of all timeBirdman or Transformers?

Despite all of this, I do concede there is an uncomfortable disconnect between the awards and the public — one that has grown larger over the years.

The disconnect is partly attributable to the rise of the blockbuster movie — which has divided the year into summer action movies vs. fall “serious” movies. The result is that the most popular films come out in the summer and the most Oscar-nominated films in the fall.

This is assisted by the fact that, as has always been true, money talks loudest in Hollywood. Ask a studio head if would he rather produce a crappy film that makes huge amounts of money or a great film that barely ekes out a profit. Almost always (maybe always), the answer will be the former. So action movie crap too often gets a green light.

The disconnect is also partly attributable to a change in viewing habits. More and more, people are content to view movies at home on their large screen televisions (or even their small mobile devices), rather than in theaters. This especially hurts theater ticket sales of smaller independent character-driven films — ones that skew toward an older less-theater-going audience and do not benefit much from being seen in a theater anyway.

There was a time when some of the best most memorable movies of the year were also among the most popular. The peak for this was probably the 1970’s — when movies like The Godfather, The French Connection, The Sting and Annie Hall won Best Picture. No more. We live in a time when, with few exceptions, the most popular and money-making films are the ones that most appeal to teenagers seeking the film equivalent of a comic book or young-adult novel. This is not the best criterion for a great film. And these films rarely get many award nominations.

So, yes, the Academy Awards are detached from the mainstream of movie-goers these days. While there is still the potential to make movies (such as American Sniper) that achieve both box office and critical success, it has become increasingly difficult to do so. But the solution is not to turn the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards. Hollywood should continue to strive to give Oscars to what it perceives as the best films, regardless of box office receipts. If that means a decline in the popularity of the Oscar telecast, so be it.

However, I believe Hollywood should be able to figure out how to make the Oscar ceremony a much more entertaining event. That could go a long way to improving the ratings. I have ideas about this, starting with focusing on movies rather than dumb musical numbers…but that’s a subject for another column.

Addendum: I just finished reading Richard Corliss’ Time magazine article [subscription required] covering this same territory. I agree with his contention that a couple of the top grossing movies were well-received and could have qualified for a Best Picture nomination (especially “The Lego Movie” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy”) — although I can’t see any of them winning. However, I would point out that equal Rotten Tomatoes ratings are not all equivalent; two movies could both get a 90% approval from critics yet these same critics could agree that only one of the movies deserves consideration for Best Picture. Corliss also makes a good point that the subject matter of most of the nominated movies appeals more to an older audience — which likely reflects the 60-ish average age of Academy members. This could use some fixing. Beyond that, the Time column did not lead me to modify the views I expressed here.

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