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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: If your TV isn't fired up on Sunday nights, when is it?

Jeff Simon

The light is on. Time for applause. We have a new winner.

Actually we have a very old winner but it's one that has suddenly sprung up in a new and radically different era. In other words, the 21st century when new TV series are routinely dropped all at once to be binged at leisure.

The contest that has been won this era is this one: even with binging now possible, what is the greatest time slot in TV history?

The new/old 2019 answer for this summer is between 9 and 11 p.m. on Sundays.

Now wise elders and punctilious young TV scholars will know that Sunday night has been TV's premiere night since Eisenhower was president and Ed Sullivan battled it out with Steve Allen for the eyes assembled in your living room. (Fast forward a few decades and Sunday nights kept you glued to the doings of "The Sopranos" on HBO.)

But so incredibly heavy has the peak TV traffic become on Sunday nights that there is, quite literally, no way to watch it all--not without liberal use of a DVRs, On Demand TV, Netflix, streaming TV in general and a dedicated commitment of Your Future Time.

It seems to me if you're not finding a way to watch anything on Sunday TV, you're missing one of the biggest reasons there is to be alive to American culture in our time. You're missing something extraordinary.

On CBS, "The Good Fight" shows you what happens when a terrific TV show spins beautifully off itself for the sake of a new streaming and then is smartly called back to the network mothership when everyone with half a brain understood three seasons later that the show was too good to waste on a technological experiment.

On HBO, they're continuing a second season of "Big Little Lies." OK, I'm not a fan of TV pushing writers around for ratings' sake, so that an original writer's vision is stretched out for the sake of still more TV viewers (and pots and pots of more money). But when your second season co-stars Meryl Streep in an already all-star female cast, who's going to argue? Not me, that's for sure.

On Showtime, you've got Kevin Bacon roostering it up on "City on a Hill" and Russell Crowe doing his best work in ages as Roger Ailes in "The Loudest Voice."

And now, as if that weren't enough to keep any lover of good television busy on Sunday nights, CNN is spinning off its "Decades" documentary history format to give us a six-part vest pocket history of "The Movies." Last week began with a look at the 1980s - "E.T." "Raging Bull" all that.

This Sunday we'll see what's swimming around in CNN's potluck stew of the '90s in movies ("Pulp Fiction," Julia Roberts' hits etc.)

And now for some hard truth: the shows, despite Tom Hanks as a co-producer, are being critically murdered. Some even go so far as to call them "Must Hate TV."

Well, I certainly understand the point but I won't go that far for a few reasons.

  1. Film clip shows are irresistible even if the clips only last a little longer than a sneeze and are accompanied by commentary as profound as a sneeze. That was obvious years ago when Siskel and Ebert called forth a horde of dueling broadcast critics from Bangor to Baja.
  2. As a recent piece in Indiewire smartly pointed out, the chronological distance between '60s and '70s movies and an 18-year-old living now is greater than the distance between '30s and '40s films and me when I was watching them on television's late movie for the first time. In other words, there are 18-year-olds out there for whom "Raging Bull" is news. What's sure to be news to people now is that back then, the old ways of marketing movies involved principals going from town to town drumming up box office action. When the real Jake LaMotta came to Buffalo, I interviewed him in his hotel and was stunned by the contrast between the sweet old gentleman he was in his dapper senior years and the ferocious fighter who couldn't be knocked down in Scorsese's film. In itself, it was a lesson both in the power of film and the effects of passing years.
  3. Not all of the pseudo-historical commentary is equally lame. The overall point of the '80' episode  was to let us know that no matter how much the "Reagan Years" wanted to sell us a new America as a shining city on a hill, the movies had a much darker and quirkier story to tell. This, as an old TV title would smartly have put it, is "not necessarily the news." But there were some very smart movie stars sprinkled in with all the other stars and directors to make for occasionally interesting seasoning on the same old hamburger. Among the many critics I was was genuinely delighted to see again being smart was the congenitally shrewd Neal Gabler (by the way, a much smarter take on '80s movies is J. Hoberman's current book "Make My Day.")

 

I'm not sure I would go as far as one critic did to say that in the '80s, "Die Hard" was every bit as entertaining in its era as "Casablanca" was in its. But it's certainly an interesting notion. And "Die Hard" when it was brand sparkling new was entertaining enough to stop any honest critic and skeptical audience member in his or her tracks.

Where I think CNN completely missed an opportunity is this: the actual histories of actors, writers and directors here who are presented in a roll call vacuum are as fascinating as some of the movies, if not more so. And CNN could have done a bang-up job with that.

For instance, the director of "Die Hard" was the brilliant John McTiernan, who should have gone on to have a blockbuster career we're still talking about four decades later. He didn't. He did weird and intermittently interesting remakes of a couple Norman Jewison movies ("Rollerball," and "The Thomas Crown Affair") and then served 328 days in prison for getting involved with Hollywood fixer/thug Anthony Pelicano.

If McTiernan could ever score financing to make an autobiographical film about a talented man whose life imploded decisively, I'd be one of the first in line to see it.

The 18-year olds will, no doubt, watch CNN's clip storms and get good checkoff lists of movies they need to see.

Passionate moviegoers who are very much their seniors will be tickled by fizzy little film clips and - every now and then just to keep us awake - a genuinely interesting idea about them.

The schedule after this week gives is the '90s in film is: July 21, 2000's to today; July 28, the '''70s" which many consider the greatest single decade in American movies; Aug. 4, The "'60s" and Aug. 11, The Golden Age, i.e. The '30s through the '50s.

 

 

 

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