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03.23.09

guest

THE GIRLS ARE BACK IN SCHOOL and my time is my own again. I'm tardy with my reviews of Happy-Go-Lucky, Barney Miller Season 3, a Fuji camera, and that death-of-newspapers thing I promised almost two weeks ago. I'm also woefully behind on the feature/book proposal project. But hey - why not talk about something that happened to me last week:

I LIKE TO JOKE that almost nobody I knew - not my friends, not my family - really understood what I did until they saw me on television. Appearing on TV - on a chat or current affairs show, or just being caught on camera doing my job at a press conference or awards show concert - validated my choice of profession more than any byline or paycheque, so I tend to say yes whenever I'm invited to go on television, no matter how relevant my presence might be to the proceedings.

I was sure that I'd have more to say on Michael Coren's show last week than I did when I agreed to do CBC Newsworld's Sunday morning current affairs program a couple of years ago, just after the death of Anna Nicole Smith, where I apparently outraged the female host by suggesting that Smith had unhappily filled a "whore-shaped hole" in the culture. Note to self: don't quote Pascal on national television.

Michael had asked me on to participate in what he hoped would be a regular culture panel on the show, which I thought was extremely generous considering how I'd only just recently lost my job as a TV columnist, and might be considered an uncredentialled authority to some viewers. I was grateful for the chance, though, and only just a little bit nervous about how whiny/stunned/fat I might appear on camera. Thanks to Mississauga Matt, here's the show, in five parts:











I was grateful for the chance to talk about the fate of newspapers - a subject I've been forced to confront a bit more intimately than I might have wanted - and happy that fellow panelist Russell Smith had actually read the book that, from the sounds of the thing, I'd have read only after exhausting a list of alternatives that included Drano enemas and self-circumcision. I was also rather bitter that we never had a chance to talk about the most recent episode of Big Love, and the protests from Mormons outraged that a sacred ritual had been dramatized. I'd actually bothered to download and watch the thing in advance, and it reminded me that a) I've never really understood the appeal of Big Love, and b) Mormons are weird.

We did get a chance to talk about the CBC, a subject that four years of writing a TV column forced me to think about more than I might have liked. My attitude toward the CBC probably isn't uncommon in my country - indifference occasionally punctuated by a spike in attention when something goes wrong or some rare production manages, quite against precedent, to turn out watchable.

We taped the show in the middle of a week when the National Post had been running a series of "whither CBC?" opinion pieces, so a lot of prescriptions for the CBC's survival (or extinction) were in the air. On the previous Saturday, we had the strange - but not unusual for the Post - spectacle of a page featuring the ex- and current husbands of Barbara Amiel kicking off the series. Under an impressively dated portrait of himself in full 1984 media dude garb, George Jonas reminisced about his own history at the public radio and television network, and expressed his chagrin at how the infinite possibilities for bettering the culture had been squandered on TV, and that the CBC, with its unique mandate to provide that which commercial broadcasters can't, was the greatest disappointment. "Being mindless and pompous at the same time was a challenge, he wrote, "but the CBC responded admirably to it." According to Jonas, the CBC only finished the job that its audience started, by preferring lowbrow pablum to high-minded edification; considering the fatal flaw someone like Jonas sees afflicting television and its audience (also known as the Great Unwashed, or "peasants,") you'd think that he'd dispense with the fond memories and look forward to the whole medium disappearing so we have more time for, I don't know, repertory theatre, or plainsong.

On the other half of the page, Conrad Black came to praise the CBC, not to bury it. The public broadcaster has a "difficult mandate," to be sure, and probably an impossible one. It was never going to be an effective voice for national unity when it was married to a French language counterpart that was complicit in the separatist cause, and thanks to decades of leftist dominance of its news division, its international coverage was always reliably tinged with anti-American tropes. The news division has improved, Black reckons, and should be funded to compete with the BBC's World News division, and while the network should stop buying American programming, it should have first dibs at C-SPAN material, as start retelecasting the best programming from French-language and Commonwealth countries.

"Down-market sitcoms, soap operas, quiz shows, infomercials and the horrors of reality television, should all be avoided," Black insists, in favor of a weekly opera broadcast from Toronto or elsewhere. Like so many people, Black is certain that the CBC should more closely resemble something that he'd watch.

Two days later, another half page of the op-ed section was given over to Robert Cushman, the Post's TV and theatre critic, reminiscing about growing up with the BBC, musing that the CBC's left-liberal bias is natural and probably inevitable, and that it's not only undersubsidized, but shares every cultural institution's nature of being "good things in themselves." Why, he never says - he admits that the network's successes are limited, and he has no suggestions as to what role or shape it should take at this point in history. Still, it needs to be "funded to a high standard, and then held to it." Like that's worked before.

On the other half of the page Lorne Gunter takes a very different position on the CBC: "(P)ull down its office buildings and stations and pour salt in their foundations." He makes no exemption for CBC radio - one that almost all of its critics do, as a matter of form - and makes his case purely on the numbers: The CBC takes a billion dollars a year to serve a tiny sliver of the national audience - 1 out of 12, he says, are regular listerners or viewers - and subsidize a world view focused entirely on a small media class in the country's largest city. If CTS - the network that carries Michael Coren's show - and the English-language arm of Al-Jazeera now carried here can produce obviously biased programming and thrive in Canada, why should the nation subsidize the CBC? Gunter has made this case before, and he makes it well, but I'm under no illusion that anyone, elected or unelected, with a position of responsibility in the government, will ever advocate it seriously.

It's the position taken by Robert Fulford a few days later in the Post: "A minority government could never stand the storm of public anger that would follow, egged on by an army of self-righteous journalistic defenders." Still, the network is a model of dysfunctional agendas and management, he says, producing shows that "appear to be the work of 30-year-olds instructed by 45-year-olds on how to appeal to 20-year-olds." He hopes that "there are fresh and largely unknown talents sprouting inside the corporation and their up-from-below pressure will eventually work serious changes." A decent hope, but like Cushman's "high standard" or Black's vision of an elite aggregator of the world's best, I have no idea how it's going to happen.

On Coren's show, I end up agreeing with Colby Cosh's exercise in "If I Were King" wishful thinking, and insist that the best thing that the CBC could do is leave the airwaves and go online, which elicits a dubious moan from Michael. I've actually been talking about this for years, and not just for the CBC - at least once a week for the last two years I turned my column over to what was probably its sole theme: the TV business is broken, mostly because nobody amuses themselves the way they did in 1957, and the sooner everyone gets it the better.

It'll be a long time before we, as a country, have moved out from under the dark clouds of our long, agonized - and incredibly annoying - quest for "national identity," and a CBC that insists on acting like it's a real broadcasting network isn't going to move that process along any faster, Cosh writes. Without the onerous costs of running a broadcasting system, the CBC could do its small but possibly vital part at much lower cost to the country's overstretched resources. To which I'd add that, were it to abdicate the airwaves tomorrow, it would be able to do it and proudly say that, unique among television networks, it saw the future and made a foothold there before everyone else. It's the sort of thing that Canadians could justifiably be proud about, regardless of what they think about how well - or poorly - you think the network is serving you.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA LEFT THE AIR last week with the same muffled fanfair that characterized its four seasons of doomy space opera - with some minor notice from the mainstream media, but a great deal of howling and wailing from the geeky stretches of the online landscape. I'd stopped watching regularly several weeks ago - roughly around the time I lost my job, and with it access to the screeners a nice publicist from the Space channel had been sending me. I promised myself I'd reconnect on DVD - the same way I'd watched every other season - but I couldn't resist the temptation to TiVo Friday's finale, if only to prevent spoiler rage.

Which is a nice way of saying that if you haven't seen it yet, stop reading here.

What struck me most of all was how much the show, more even than anything in the four seasons that preceded it, relied on and strove for the explicitly spiritual in trying to tie up the considerable loose ends and character arcs that they'd tossed in the air over the last five years. In a Last Frackin' Special that aired here before the finale, co-creator Ronald Moore talked about how hard it was to write the final episode, and that he was only able to see a way through when he realized that characters, not plot, were the key to the show, and instructed his writers to forget about a neat resolution.

Which sure isn't what we got. The show had the body count that everyone expected from the last episode of The Sopranos - Roslin, Tory, Cavil, Boomer, Anders, Simon, Doral: all dead by the time the credits roll. Only Roslin gets anything like a death scene, albeit one that we've basically been anticipating since she was diagnosed with cancer, and it's a good one - probably one of the most truly heartbreaking scenes in the show, thanks to Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos.

And then there's Starbuck. Her death - if you can call it that - was one of the few really startling moments in the whole show, and I can't help but feel that Moore or whatever writer imagined her final words and sudden vanishing long ago, and were intent on working that moment into the finale come what may. It has an undeniable logic, even if it was violently unsatisfying for at least half of the fans commenting on online forums this weekend. So Starbuck was, from the moment she returned from the dead at the end of the third season, a ghost, an angel, a Christ figure? Who knows - but suggesting any of the three possibilities is sure to make the show's hardcore science-before-faith fans nearly apoplectic.

The overwhelming reliance on the spiritual at the series' conclusion shouldn't be any surprise considering Ronald Moore's background on Star Trek, the most resolutely theist sci-fi franchise ever. Theologically, though, Trek was well-meaning, universalist nonsense, like Unitarianism or Baha'i; Galactica took its religious preoccupations much more seriously, and the Cylon war of annihilation was a jihad of sorts, after all, with the machines taking the position of fanatic monotheists facing off against the decadent polytheist humans - the sort of thing that the show's secularist fans considered very richly ironic, of course.

By the end, though, that's all dissolved, and we have Baltar speechifying about God's plan and angels, flashbacks that try to connect many of the show's prophesies like a string of beads, and Starbuck, disappearing silently after announcing that she's fulfilled her purpose. After toying with belief and doubt - Roslin's character arc as prophetess comes to mind - the show ends up relying on some jerry-built machinery of spiritual and supernatural to hold together the finale and lend it some resonance beyond just a big battle where the bad guys finally lose. It's funny when you think how the science-over-faith types like to call Christians primitive and illogical; it's at times like this that I'm grateful for the 2,000 plus years we primitive believers have had to ponder faith. If Battlestar Galactica's finale proves anything, it's that five years sure as shit ain't enough.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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