April 22, 2009

The needle and the damage done

My name is Paul, and I am an addict.

I first recognized my “problem” about 25 years ago when, during a training session at my newly acquired summer job (Burger King, Shelbyville Road), a man of regional authority advised my group of recent hires that our shared enterprise depended upon getting our customers to come back again and again, because, duh, even if every person in Louisville came to our restaurant once, but only once, we would go out of business sooner or later. And so, we were told to make sure that our customers were happy with their experience so they might return, and our restaurant would continue to be profitable for the owners and we would be able to keep our lucrative jobs.

That experience opened my eyes to some ugly truths about business in America. First, as far as most business owners are concerned, customers are little more than cattle. Second, success in business depends, in large part, on the careful manipulation of the customer’s tendency to behave in a habitual manner.

One of my addictions is series television. A few years ago, I started to notice that the narrative style of television drama was changing. It probably started as far back as the late 1970s with the mini-series “Roots,” but over the last few years, the addictive, event-oriented approach to storytelling has invaded most, if not all, of the weekly dramas offered by the Big Three and beyond.

HBO really got the ball rolling with “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.” These were series that would leave the viewer aching for the next episode by providing powerful drama and character development while withholding any sense of regular satisfactory resolution. This was especially the case with “Six Feet Under,” which, oddly, had no truly embraceable characters, just fractured souls who only every once in a while almost connected just a little bit, giving us enough encouragement to come back for another brush with closeness … but never any more than that. Kind of like reality!

Now it seems like every new drama is jumping on the “continued story” bandwagon. Sometimes this concept is handled brilliantly: “Lost,” for instance, had its stumbling moments during seasons two and three, but the fourth season made up for a lot, and the current season is a regular mindfuck that has fans jonesin’ for more as soon as the credits roll. (Wednesday’s installment, by the way, is a recap type deal that might give new viewers a chance to catch up on the current plethora of time traveling plotlines. Good luck, newbies!)

Another of the very best examples of this approach, “Breaking Bad,” deals with the continuing story of a terminally ill chemistry teacher who engages the methamphetamine trade in order to leave a nest egg for his family. This delightful entertainment keeps us coming back to see how insanely ridiculous this situation can get without crashing and burning completely. The beauty of the narrative is that, like “The Perils of Pauline,” we are guaranteed an outlandishly bizarre, narrow escape now and then, and corresponding endorphin rush is better than real drugs. (By the way, don’t try to start in the middle; get the first season on DVD.)

On the other end of the spectrum, “Heroes” is the kind of train wreck that should have been cancelled 10 minutes into its second season. The first season was focused and engaging, but after that, it seems like the producers were ready to try anything, commit to any bizarre tangent, in order to keep their audience off balance. But like “Alias” (that wacky spy “drama” featuring Jennifer Garner and her many funky-colored wigs), the show flipped and flopped so many times, it started to look like a fish desperately trying to get back to the water. Still, the cast is moderately engaging, and I can’t stop watching. I can’t! Train wrecks, after all, are terribly compelling.

If you’ve managed to avoid exposure to these programs, well, good for you. But if you’re stuck on “Chuck” or “The Mentalist” or, well, whatever, please get help. Twelve-Step groups should be forming soon. In the meantime, find somebody to talk to. Chances are your friends are watching the same show, and talking to people is good.

For further consideration: Check out “The Prisoner” (1967), starring Patrick McGoohan, on DVD, before AMC starts airing the remake (starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellan). Ugh! Better yet, track down an episode of “The Rockford Files.”