One of my consistent mantras over the course of the last several years is that television has become a wasteland of mediocrity. I know it is perfectly natural to have a revisionist memory and recall one’s childhood as being far more idyllic than it probably was in reality. But I don’t think my recollection of how interesting the TV landscape was 20-30 years ago as compared to today is that far from the truth. I fondly remember legendary comedies like Cheers, One Day At A Time, Happy Days, Taxi, Family Ties, and The Cosby Show, as well as well written dramas like Dallas, LA Law, Hill Street Blues, and Little House On The Prairie. I even have a soft spot for not-so-legendary shows like Three’s Company, The Love Boat, The Dukes of Hazzard, Newhart, The A-Team, Night Court, Who’s The Boss?, and ALF. I could probably name dozens more memorable shows. I almost feel sorry for today’s generation of kids. They flip through the channels and are faced with a glut of “reality” shows that in no way represent anything real, kicked up action programming where death and mayhem reign supreme & sc-fi is bastardized beyond recognition, and animated fare that just further emphasizes society’s descent into depravity, crude behavior, Godlessness, and disrespect toward our fellow man. It is amazing that we have hundreds more channels available now but far less quality programming. However, if one looks in the right places at the right times there still are some interesting, informative, eminently watchable shows on your television. And since I am here to not only entertain but to educate, it is my pleasure to give you…..
from the home office in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Arizona…..
The Superfluous 7 TV Shows Actually Worth Your Time:
7 Man vs. Food
Strangely enough, this show is NOT on The Food Network. Now I love me some Food Network (Alton Brown is interesting and informative, Giada De Laurentiis is just plain smokin’ hot, and a plethora of other shows satisfy any foodie’s entertainment appetite), but amongst the abundance of food-centric fare on television, Man vs. Food stands out. The basic premise is that the host visits a city and takes on one of those infamous gigantic food challenges, the kind where one attempts to consume enough food to choke a horse within a limited window of time, all so they can get a crappy t-shirt or have their picture placed on a wall in the restaurant for the masses and posterity to celebrate. I’ve watched Adam (the host) try to defeat such precipitous tests of will as a 12 pound hamburger, an 11 pound pizza, 15 dozen oysters, a 7 pound breakfast burrito, a 2 gallon ice cream sundae, and all manner of inhumanly hot wings. He is successful in his quest about 60% of the time, but that’s not really the point. If all there was to this show was the ginormous food feats of craziness I probably wouldn’t be all that interested. To be honest watching someone try to eat such epic portions of food can make one a little uncomfortable and concerned for the host’s health. However, what I find so cool about Man vs. Food is the celebration of food and the spotlight it shines on local eateries that many have never heard of but might now be inspired to check out. I don’t travel as much as I’d prefer, but when I do I try to stay away from chain restaurants and things I can have any time right in my own back yard. I like to venture out ever so gently onto a limb. After watching Man vs. Food I now know of hidden gems I should seek out if I ever find myself in places like Durham NC, Boise ID, or Amarillo TX. There are other shows on TV that do some of the same investigative work, but I find Adam accessible, like a guy me and my buddies might hang out with and share a pitcher of brew. Man vs. Food airs on The Travel Channel. Check your local listings.
6 It’s Me Or the Dog
I became the proud master of a puppy…an adorable pug…about a year and a half ago. The first few months were a bit trying, as I had never trained a dog before and circumstances make it somewhat difficult to do so in the manner most others might go about the task. I read everything I could find online and elsewhere, and sought the counsel of knowledgeable friends. But one of the biggest sources of assistance and pleasure during that time became this little gem of a show. Most people have heard of and many rave about The Dog Whisperer Caesar Milan, and he is quite helpful and just fine by me. However, I am drawn much more to Victoria Stilwell. I am perfectly aware that her hot dominatrix aura likely reaches some sort of latent sexual yearning deep within me. After all, coquettish British minx vs. middle aged Latin animal pseudo-psychologist is an easy choice for a relatively young and virile single man. Putting all that aside though, I find Victoria’s methods and the people she deals with on her show much more relatable and entertaining. Does she tend to oversimplify things a bit?? Probably. But not nearly as much as Milan, who in my opinion just makes dog owners look stupid and incompetent. Sure he’s got a special gift, but that does me and almost everyone else no good because we don’t have that gift. It reminds me of college, where there were professors who were experts in their field and could not seem to grasp why no one else found the subject so simple, and then there were professors who appeared to realize they were dealing with a bunch of kids who had probably been out until 3am partying up a storm and were not automatically brilliant scholars just because they had pulled off the task of gaining entry into a university. Victoria is that type of understanding teacher, and trust me…she needs to be. The dog owners on this show are oftentimes hilarious in a pathetically aggravating sort of way, but somehow they usually manage to learn atleast a few techniques to make their lives easier. It’s Me or The Dog airs on Animal Planet, and I encourage all dog lovers to check it out.
5 How It’s Made
On your menu of hundreds of television stations there is something called The Science Channel. Now do not get this mixed up with The SyFy Channel, which has strayed so far from its original premise that it’s not even spelled correctly and the highest rated program is professional wrestling. The Science Channel is part of The Discovery Channel family, as so many of the best networks seem to be (TLC, Animal Planet, The Travel Channel). How It’s Made takes us inside various factories and shows the mass production process for a plethora of products, from foodstuffs like cereal and beer, to household items like washers, light bulbs and batteries, to more unusual things like slot machines and artificial Christmas trees. This is exactly the kind of show that I would have skipped right past in my younger days. Science was only slightly less tedious than math when I was a student. But somewhere along the line my intellectual curiosity branched out and the way the world (and the stuff in it) works began to be an appealing topic of informal study and observation. I blame mundane teachers who are somehow unable to grab the attention of kids and show them what a fascinating universe God has provided. Anyway, How It’s Made isn’t a fancy show with a lot of bells and whistles. It’s straightforward and very minimalist. But I look at it like one should view a good steak…..if the meat is high quality and tastes good then it does not need to be enhanced with sauces and other garnish. I would like to take this opportunity to say that another show was in the running for this spot but was disqualified because it is no longer in production. John Ratzenberger, better known as Cliff the know-it-all mailman from Cheers, used to host a program on The Travel Channel called Made In America, which was basically the same sort of thing except it highlighted only factories in the United States and had Ratzenberger instead of a narrator.
4 Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
I have come to terms with the fact that, because of various monetary, lifestyle, and personal circumstances there are a lot of places in the world I would like to visit but never will. While some may consider it sad to live vicariously through television, I choose to embrace the fact that technology allows us to realize that there is a huge world outside of the confines of our small individual lives, and sometimes permits us to take a pretty fascinating ride all while dressed in cozy jammies in the comforts of our own abode. My philosophy is that if you are going to waste time in front of the “idiot box” then why not try to learn something and have it be a somewhat enlightening experience instead of wallowing in just how far into the abyss our society has sunk. At any rate, Anthony Bourdain is a master chef who, in this series, travels the globe and shows the viewer the real deal about the food and culture of various locales. He is dismissive of the normal tourist traps, going beneath the surface to seek the authentic aspects of what makes a place unique. Bourdain himself isn’t your normal television pretty boy. He’s a subversive, slightly contentious, crusty curmudgeon who makes no secret about his hard drinking, drug induced, very colorful past. He tells it like it is and if people don’t like it that’s too bad. On the flip side though, his genuine affection for food and average, hard working, real people is obvious, and his edgy sense of humor is infectious. No Reservations has explored familiar destinations like New York City, Vegas, Italy, London, Chicago, and Hawaii, but there have also been shows about such out of the way places as Ghana, Sri Lanka, Iceland, and Uzbekistan, which is apparently an actual country and not one of those places they used to fictionalize on The West Wing. I promise you this is unlike any foodie show you’ve ever watched. So light up a smoke, pour yourself a glass of single malt scotch or top shelf whiskey, and find Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on The Travel Channel. You won’t be sorry.
3 Mike & Mike In the Morning
Anyone who knows me even the slightest bit knows I am a huge sports fan. And any sports fan knows that television and radio are chock full of folks whose job goes far beyond just reporting scores and reviewing highlights. As a matter of fact I wish sports talk radio would have been so ubiquitous back in the 70’s and 80’s when I was growing up because I am almost certain that after spending hours listening to some jackass yuk it up and discuss sports and realizing that he was getting paid for it my career path would have been set at a very young age and my life would be dramatically different right now. Unfortunately for me such shows on radio and television did not come along until it was too late to change my precipitous descent into middle class mediocrity, so now all I can do is enjoy them as a fan and, for the present moment, write (for no money) about one in particular on my (free) blog. That one that stands above the rest is Mike & Mike In the Morning, broadcast on ESPN Radio and simulcast on ESPN2, aka The Deuce, every weekday. Now another little factoid about me is that I am by no stretch of the imagination a morning person. I don’t really get into the zone until noon-ish and my finest hours are usually between 10pm and 4am. So for me to enjoy a show that is broadcast from 6-10am it must be very cool indeed. The hosts, sports journalist/everyman Mike Greenberg (aka Greeny) and former journeyman NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic are the sporting world’s Odd Couple. Golic is a man’s man, tough and rough around the edges…a more family friendly Al Bundy. Greeny is a nerdy, wimpy, metrosexual that one can just picture driving the kids in the minivan to church and then out for ice cream afterward. The mix works perfectly. The show can be goofy and irreverent, but also is plenty meaty when it comes to actually covering the sports stories du jour. The guys have plenty of guests on to chat about all aspects of a topic and do so professionally and thoroughly while still having plenty of fun. A lot of sports talk shows have competing hosts or contributors who try to become the center of attention by shouting the loudest or exhibiting the most attitude. I don’t need that kind of diva mentality or arrogance. I like Mike and Mike because they are genuine…..genuinely passionate about their love of sports and genuinely affable in reporting the daily events in the sports world. The program does last 4 hours, and it can occasionally get repetitive, especially if there is one dominant story. Sometimes they will rehash at 8 what they opened the show with at 6. But that’s okay, because I know if I don’t tune in right at the beginning or can’t watch the full four hours I might not miss too much.
2 Pawn Stars
I have to give a shout out to my good friend The Owl for introducing me to this show. It has quickly become one of my favorites. There seem to be two different types of reality shows on TV. What most people think of as reality shows are pure poppycock like The Bachelor, Project Runway, The Biggest Loser, and Wife Swap. But there is a better class of reality…stuff like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers (which almost made this list), Ax Men, and Dirty Jobs. Maybe these are classified as “documentary” shows?? I don’t know. However they are labeled though, an intelligent person will instantly know the difference. At the top of the class for me is The History Channel’s Pawn Stars, which takes us inside a family owned Las Vegas pawn shop, shows how the business works, and has the family dynamic as an added bonus. The family is three generations of the Harrisons…The Old Man, his son Rick, and Rick’s son Cory (who they try to put over as Big Hoss, but it seems like a forced nickname that no one really uses). Also along for the ride is Cory’s best bud and fellow employee Chumley, referred to often as the village idiot. The format of each show is pretty standard…someone comes in with some very odd or theoretically very old item that they want to sell (very few people want to pawn things on this show, which is interesting), Rick doesn’t know if it’s authentic or how much it’s worth or how much might need to be spent on repair and restoration so he “knows a guy” who can tell him. That expert comes in and gives the pawn shop crew, the item’s potential seller, and we the viewers a mini history lesson. A deal is struck…or not. There are 3 or 4 of these little storylines interspersed throughout the thirty minute program. As you might imagine, precious air time is not wasted on some college student wanting to ditch his outdated herringbone gold necklace for beer money or someone who just lost their job and needs to hock all the junk in their house to pay the mortgage. These stories need to be interesting to keep our attention, so the items we see being brought into the shop are things like Civil War weapons, American Revolution era currency, 1970’s & 80’s video games, mint condition classic guitars, and all kinds of vehicles…boats, motorcycles, airplanes, old cars. I can count on one hand the number of times I have ever been inside a pawn shop in my life, but I am smart enough to realize that it’s not always that interesting. Kudos though to the creators and producers of this show for taking the concept and finding a way to make it absolutely mesmerizing. The interaction between the guys is great. When I eventually make it to Vegas I will be stopping at The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop to meet The Old Man, Rick, and Chumley. Cory seems like kind of a tool.
1 Modern Marvels
If you have ever considered yourself to have any level of intellectual curiosity, this is the show for you. If you are not frightened of technology but rather fascinated by it, this is the show for you. If you are a history buff but seek more than what your school textbooks taught you, this is the show for you. But more than anything else, this is the show for anyone who likes to feel like they’ve just sat down for an hour, relaxed, been entertained, but also learned some cool stuff and didn’t completely waste their time. Modern Marvels has been on the air for about 15 years, but I am sad to say that it is only in the past year that I have discovered its brilliance. I suppose it is yet another example of my changing tastes combined with the erosion of traditional network television into the dark void of suck. History repeats many Marvels episodes, so usually what I do is DVR several shows and then on a night when there is absolutely nothing else going on (which isn’t unusual) I have an instantly entertaining and informative backup plan. Many episodes are available from Netflix as well, which is cool. Modern Marvels has covered a vast array of subjects over the years, everything from The Brooklyn Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, and The Hoover Dam to the telephone, fireworks, and nuclear submarines. The topic can be a specific place or structure (Times Square, The St. Louis Arch, Disney World) or a more general, esoteric theme (water, fire, candy, ice, milk). Over 500 episodes have been produced, so a lot of ground has been covered. It is indicative of what a wonderfully intriguing world we live in, something we should embrace.