Saturday, October 24, 2015

The dubbed laughter says it all

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 21.)

I found myself watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory the other night. It was the first time I’d seen it in years.

I enjoyed this show when it was fresh, innovative and smart. It was a clever but gentle spoof of nerd culture (or should that be geek culture? I’ve never been entirely sure of the difference).

The characters were appealingly quirky, the personal dynamics between them were rich with comedic possibilities and the dialogue was rapier-sharp.

But that was seven or eight years ago. Now the show is tired and predictable, and the dubbed laughter seems to have to grown steadily louder and more intrusive as if to compensate for the laboured script and lack of humour.

Wikipedia says The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, but I don’t believe it. The laugh track not only sounds dubbed, but crudely dubbed at that.

The four central characters were once believable as academically brilliant but socially dysfunctional bachelors with neurotic family backgrounds. Now they’re in their 40s and it stretches credulity that Leonard and Sheldon are still flatting together and obsessing over childish science-fiction and fantasy movies and TV programmes.

I watched for only 10 minutes or so, which was long enough to confirm that The Big Bang Theory in 2015 is running on empty.

This is an all-too familiar trajectory with American TV comedies. They start out witty and exhilarating and deservedly attract a big audience. But the viewers don’t seem to notice when the show ceases to be witty and exhilarating, so the host network keeps it going – and going, and going. Eventually it becomes a sad parody of itself.

This doesn’t always happen, mind you. The Simpsons, which made its debut in 1989, has lasted better than most and still displays occasional traces of the wickedly subversive humour that made it such a ground-breaker. It has become the longest-running prime-time show in American television history.

But we’ve seen the pattern with other programmes. M*A*S*H, Happy Days and Cheers all kept wheezing on long after their glory years were behind them.

You learn to recognise the warning signs when a show starts to lose momentum. Big-name guest stars begin turning up. There are flashbacks to previous episodes and excursions out of the studio to exotic locations for visual interest – anything to keep the viewers interested once the scriptwriters start running out of ideas.  

In the recent Big Bang Theory episode that I watched, the four characters were on a road trip to Mexico. Par for the course.

I also note from Wikipedia that the frequency of cameo appearances by guest stars, from physicist Stephen Hawking to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, seems to have increased as the show has aged. Even The Simpsons has frequently resorted to celebrity guests.

Another warning sign is that shows eventually lose their sharp edge and lapse into sentimental schlock. This was tragically true of M*A*S*H, which in its heyday broke barriers with its mordant satirical dialogue.

In the case of Happy Days, the desperate quest for novel story lines led to the coining of a phrase – “jumping the shark” – that captures the moment when a programme loses whatever credibility it might still have enjoyed.    

It happened in the premiere of the show’s fifth series, in which the character Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis. Significantly, that episode contained another telltale sign of a programme in decline: the characters were on a trip to Los Angeles, far from the usual setting of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

To be fair, Happy Days continued for another six seasons. But “jumping the shark” entered the language as a metaphor for any gimmick that stretches credibility to breaking point.

The Americans could learn something from the British here: quit while you’re ahead. Or to use another old showbiz cliché, keep ’em wanting more.

Fawlty Towers, a series so popular that snatches of dialogue (“Don’t mention the war”) have entered popular usage, ran for only 12 episodes – just two series of six programmes.

The scriptwriters, John Cleese and his then wife (and co-star) Connie Booth, resisted pressure to extend the show to a third series. They realised there was a point at which the idea would wear thin.

As a result, viewers never got a chance to grow tired of the programme. Quite the opposite: people are still enjoying it 40 years later.

The producers of The Office followed the example of Fawlty Towers by making only two six-episode series. Both shows now enjoy a status similar to that of a rare vintage wine.

What’s mystifying is why people keep watching American shows long after they have lost their spark.

I can only speculate that there’s a segment of the population that’s comfortable with whatever’s familiar and predictable, and that can’t be bothered making the effort to get their heads around something new and challenging. They’re probably the same people who enjoy eating at McDonald’s because they always know exactly what they’re going to be served.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A light-bulb moment in Arkaroola

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 16.)

Years ago, I watched a rugby league test on TV in a remote tourist spot in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
The match was between the Kiwis and the Wallabies and I suspect I was the only New Zealander among the 20 or so people in the TV lounge.
When the Kiwis scored, I couldn’t help letting out a triumphant whoop. It was probably not a smart thing to do.
Feeling a roomful of eyes boring into me, I explained, almost apologetically, that there was an enemy in their midst. Whereupon a fat, red-faced Aussie male in a rugby league shirt snarled: “You Kiwis are like bloody poofters. There’s always one of you in the room.”
It was said without a trace of humour. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t think of a suitable riposte, although a few occurred to me later. (Isn’t that always the way?)
That he felt no constraint about using a term such as “bloody poofters”, thereby confirming himself as a social Neanderthal, was telling in itself. An uncouth Aussie is infinitely more uncouth than the most uncouth New Zealander. It’s possibly the only sphere in which they consistently out-perform us. 
Long before that night, I had realised that Australians and New Zealanders were fundamentally different in their culture and outlook. Working in Melbourne in the early 1970s I often wondered, when I drank with my workmates in the pub, whether we even spoke the same language. 
My colleagues were friendly enough – the women a lot more so than the men – but there was always a sense of distance between us. I was left in no doubt that I was an outsider.
I got better on better with the Poms in the Melbourne Herald newsroom, probably because they were outsiders too. What’s more, they seemed more civilised.
But that night in the Arkaroola Resort and Wilderness Sanctuary (a beautiful place, by the way) was what you might call a light-bulb moment. It was only then that it dawned on me that a lot of Australians actually don’t like us.
This isn’t true of all Australians, of course. Many regard us with genuine affection.
But if you examine the history of the relationship between the two countries, you can’t help but be extremely sceptical about the mythology that surrounds it.
The attitude of most Australian politicians toward New Zealand isn’t far removed from that of the slob in the TV lounge. They tolerate us as long as they have to, and they make friendly noises when it suits them. They’re always ready to invoke the sentimental Anzac bond.
But if New Zealand gets in their way, they don’t hesitate to squash us. At best, they’re indifferent to us; at worst, they treat us with contempt.
This has been demonstrated once again by the controversy over New Zealanders awaiting deportation in Australian detention centres. Our mates in Canberra couldn’t have sent a clearer signal about the value they place on the trans-Tasman relationship.
Predictably, there was the usual nauseating Australian hypocrisy. Interviewed on Morning Report, a Queensland senator who championed the hard line on deportation said: “We love our cousins across the ditch, but …”
With Australia, there’s always a big “but”.  
We shouldn’t be surprised, because we’ve seen this time and time again. Remember Laurie Brereton, the minister in Paul Keating’s government who unilaterally cancelled an aviation agreement with New Zealand and imperiously advised his counterpart in Wellington by fax? Par for the course.
More recently, John Howard gave Helen Clark what one political reporter called the Mafia option – in other words, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse – when the Australians changed the rules relating to New Zealanders living there.  
Clark is no pushover, but her negotiating strength was zero. Howard knew that and took full advantage of it, as is the Australian way. They’re the biggest boys in the playground and they know it.
Don’t expect anything to change because of new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s professed admiration for John Key. The Key government’s meekly submissive posture on the deportation issue has signalled to Canberra that it will be business as usual.
One thing has changed, however, and quite strikingly. The angry public and media reaction to the detention camp outrage suggests New Zealanders have belatedly woken up to the fact that for decades, Australia has been playing us for suckers.
This message may not yet have got through to our politicians, who continue to defer to the bullies in Canberra out of sheer habit. But it will

Friday, October 9, 2015

The strangely liberating experience of receiving money you haven't earned

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 7.)
I recently passed a personal milestone. I became a superannuitant.
This entitles me to a Super Gold card and all the public transport perks that go with it.

A friend of mine, obviously with far too much time on his hands, worked out that I could travel from my home in the Wairarapa to Waiheke Island for $49.
This would involve catching an off-peak train to Wellington, getting on a bus to Wellington Airport – all for nothing – then catching a cheap Jetstar flight to Auckland.

From Auckland Airport I could catch a bus free of charge to the downtown terminal, from where it would be a short walk to catch a ferry – again, at no cost – to Waiheke. The only cost to me would be the $49 Jetstar ticket.
All very interesting (and thank you Winston Peters), but what my friend failed to explain is why I should want to go to Waiheke in the first place.

I’ve been there and while it’s very pretty, I got the distinct impression that the principal objective of Waiheke islanders is to relieve mainlanders of as much of their money as possible in the shortest time available, and often without so much as a smile. (Old Chinese proverb:  If you find it difficult to smile, do not open a shop.) 
Putting all that aside, turning 65 does seem a life-changing event. A sum of money mysteriously turns up in my bank account every fortnight without my having done anything to earn it.

This a novel and strangely liberating experience. It means that for the first time in my life, if I were prepared to live frugally, I could possibly get by without working.
I don't intend to dwell here on the affordability issue, but my view, for what it’s worth, has long been that the age of entitlement for national super should be progressively raised, given that people are living and working longer. Of course I would say that, having reached 65 myself.

I certainly intend to go on working while I can. But I also think there’s merit in the idea that people whose bodies are worn out after a lifetime of hard physical work should be allowed to retire earlier than 65 in return for a lower super payment.

As to whether superannuation should be means-tested, as it is in Australia, I’m not so sure.
The problem with that idea is that it penalises people who have made provision for their retirement by saving. This usually means denying themselves things they might otherwise have enjoyed.

Conversely, means testing could have the perverse effect of incentivising people not to save or acquire assets, knowing that the state will look after them. So, on balance: no, it would send the wrong signals. Slackers could be rewarded and the diligent penalised. What sort of message is that?
But never mind the big policy questions. Having reached 65 myself, I face a far more immediate personal dilemma – one that confronts almost every person of my age.
Do we carefully try to conserve whatever we’ve managed to save, keeping a tight rein on spending in the knowledge that we might need it to supplement national superannuation well into the future, or do we make the best of whatever time we’ve got?

Put more bluntly, should we scrimp or live it up?
The complicating factor is that none of us know how much time we have left. Over the past few years I have seen too many friends and relations – people of roughly my own age – get sick and die.

Only recently a friend and former colleague went into hospital for what should have been routine surgery. Unforeseen complications developed, as a result of which she died weeks later.
She and her recently retired husband were still active and looking toward to a full and rewarding life together. Almost overnight, everything changed.

Such stories are all too common. Inevitably, they encourage a fatalistic belief that we should live for today because we don’t know how many tomorrows we’ve got.
Certainly, friends of mine who have survived life-threatening illnesses are in no doubt that we should make the most of life while we can.

It doesn’t help when we read “expert” assessments of how much we need to live comfortably in retirement. The sums I often see quoted are wildly unrealistic for most people. They can be hardly be blamed if they give a helpless shrug and ask themselves why they should bother even trying. 
At the other end of the scale I see anxious letters to financial advice columns from people who have accumulated very substantial savings and are plainly terrified that they might end their lives in penury.

This tends to confirm my long-held view that the more money you’ve got, the more you’re likely to fret that it isn’t enough.
Fortunately we’re not presented with a stark choice between living a monastic existence of self-denial or going on a mad spending spree for fear that we might fall under a bus tomorrow. As with so many things in life, it’s a matter of balance and moderation.

There’s a sensible middle course and that’s the one I intend to take, if I’m allowed to by whatever mysterious forces control my life. It may mean forgoing a visit to Waiheke Island, but I can live with that.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

At least he's consistently barmy

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 2.)
Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the British Labour Party, has been described as a throwback to 1970s-style socialism. He even looks like one, his face being adorned with what one commentator described as a 1960s political beard.  
You could describe him as the accidental leader. When his name was put forward, few people took his bid seriously.

His 32 years in Parliament were distinguished only by his record of voting against his own party whenever it deviated from cloth-cap leftist orthodoxy.
But the trade unions got behind him, party activists signed up tens of thousands of new members – mostly young, earnest and radical – and before you could hum the first bar of The Red Flag, Corbyn was the new leader.

I blame Tony Blair. Corbyn’s prospects must have been enormously enhanced the moment Blair warned the party against electing him.
The former Labour prime minister is widely despised, and deservedly so – not just for getting involved in the Iraq war on spurious grounds, but for his fondness for hobnobbing with people like the odious Silvio Berlusconi and his shameless money-grubbing since leaving Downing Street.

The term Blairite, which once stood for a “third way” between the extremes of doctrinaire socialism and ruthless capitalism, is now toxic – so much so that Blair’s disapproval of Corbyn must have virtually ensured his success.
The new leader certainly didn’t win the contest on the basis of his charisma. He’s a dreary grey Marxist. Even Labour insiders say his election has set the party back years.

For all that, I can understand why Labour members decided to give Corbyn a go. He stands for something.
His ideas might be barmy, but they seem sincerely held. What’s more, he appears to have been consistently barmy for more than three decades. As far as we can tell, he hasn’t wavered from his principles.

In other words, he personifies the politics of conviction – a rare phenomenon in an era when politics is largely driven by focus groups, PR spin, the news cycle and opinion polls.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, this otherwise admirable quality is likely to be useless as a vote-winner.

Conviction politics tends to be a dead-end street. Just look at the Green Party, apparently doomed forever to languish on the political fringes (although commentators have recently detected a diluting of its ideological purity), or Act at the other end of the political spectrum – a party grimly hanging on thanks to a dodgy electoral accommodation with National.
Look too at the hapless Tony Abbott, a conviction politician but a disastrously inept one.

Successful politicians are those who take a pragmatic centre line, such as John Key.
We don’t have a clue what Key’s values are. He’s never really told us.

Does he have a non-negotiable bottom line on anything? I couldn’t say. Does he have any fire in his belly? Not that we’ve seen.
Norman Kirk had fire in his belly. So did David Lange and even Robert Muldoon, although in Muldoon’s case the flames were often dark and malevolent.

But not Key. He represents a breed of bland centrist politicians who tack in whichever direction is expedient.
On some crucial issues – gay marriage, parental smacking – he jettisoned traditional values that a centre-right party such as National might have been expected to uphold. But he got away with it, and he’s won three elections in a row.

His admirer Malcolm Turnbull, the new Australian prime minister, seems cast in a similar mould, as does Britain’s bloodless David Cameron.
Barack Obama’s idealistic supporters in 2008 thought he was a conviction politician, but in office he has disappointed them. That’s politics for you.

What’s interesting now is that the main threat to Hillary Clinton’s bid to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, which until recently was thought a sure thing, seems to be coming from a little-known Vermont senator named Bernie Sanders.
Clinton is a conviction politician only in the sense that she’s convinced of her entitlement to office. Sanders, on the other hand, is a genuine conviction politician and that rarest of creatures, an American socialist.

Both Sanders and Corbyn have gained traction partly because of a growing public distaste for entrenched political elites (which has given Donald Trump momentum too), but also because of a growing perception – and not just on the left – that capitalism has been hijacked by the greedy ultra-rich.
They won’t win, of course. But at least they remind us of what politics used to be about.