You may recall that I’m a relative newbie when it comes to really big TV. Our family room’s western wall is now dominated by a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen is dominated by a stunning picture of a red robin who must be at least three feet tall. There’s a common yellow throat, also larger than my dog. A bufflehead. An olive-sided flycatcher. These are among 118 birds that receive full screen credits, alongside author Jonathan Franzen, legendary Central Park birdwatcher and tour guide Starr Saphir, and other humans who, particularly during the migration months of late spring, watch birds in Central Park. You can watch them, too.
I watched Birders: The Central Park Effect on Netflix, mostly because I was too tired last night to make any sort of meaningful viewing selection. My wife found Birders, enjoys bird watching, and so, we both spent an hour stunned by the images, a pleasant story, and the depths of, well, dweeb behavior (the word used by Franzen to describe his feeling when peering through binoculars and shutting out the rough-and-tumble big city).
When the day winds down, my wife and I try to catch at least an hour’s worth of television viewing. Apart from two or three network series, we mostly forget that CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC exist. We watch HBO, but never when the network schedules programs. Just about all viewing is on-demand, and nowadays, most of that viewing is done on Netflix.
When we first subscribed to Netflix’s online service, it was just awful. That’s no longer true. Not with every episode of Mission: Impossible (some tedious, some superb), a wide range of foreign and independent films, and lots and lots of interesting documentaries. Recent viewing includes a doc about 1960s-1970s singer Harry Nilsson (whose life story causes every ‘and then I found myself howling at the moon’ episode of Behind the Music seem like child’s play), another about the strident, talented, and fatally flawed 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, and, the list goes on. It’s all available any time, any where, on any device, so the idea of tuning into anything that’s scheduled for somebody else’s convenience on a plain old TV seems, well, kinda silly.
Originally, we re-subscribed to Netflix to watch Kevin Spacey pretend to be a powerful congressman on House of Cards. We’ve now watched three or four episodes. We’re done. Spacey is consistently terrific, but the it’s difficult to justify watching smarmy Washingtonians sluggishly gumming up the works of government when there are three three foot tall American Coots and Dark-Eyed Juncos in the room (no, I never tire of ridiculous bird names). I’m told the British series is excellent, and it’s likely that watching somebody’s else’s screwed-up government will be more entertaining than watching our own dysfunction. But it’s not high on the list.
Much higher, and now just completed after six one-hour viewing sessions, is Stephen Fry in America. Fry is a popular, literate Brit who travels through the lower forty-eight in his black London Cab (which made its way across the Atlantic by boat). Below, he is enjoying life in a hot tub on a houseboat on a man-made lake with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline–”quite extraordinary” in his words.
Fry travels to visit one of the few remaining residents of a Kansas ghost town (who remains optimistic about the tourist potential of his tumble-down main street), the man who runs Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, to paddle the Mississippi River with a man who truly loves his river, to hang out with Morgan Freeman in his blues club near the crossroads where Robert Johnson traded his soul for some superior guitar licks, spends a leisurely afternoon with a Western family that’s okay with the many nearby bears but not so much with the increasing number of aggressive wolves who have lost six of their dogs and an eleven-day-old coat to their hunger, and on from there. We watched the series on Netflix. You can watch every minute of his adventures, for free, in high definition, on YouTube.
YouTube is becoming one my favorite “channels” (I don’t know the correct term, but video library seems clunky). This past weekend, I watched Paul Newman and Jane Curtin in an extraordinary big-screen production of Our Town, which was done on Broadway for Showtime and PBS. It’s here, and I’ve now recommended it to a lot of people because it is just terrific–a very different experience from our English class read aloud experience of the play in, what, tenth grade.
So what’s the point? Well, I’m pretty sure the point now goes well beyond binging on House of Cards (oy!), or Breaking Bad (not for me, either), or more than 250 original episodes of Mission: Impossible or Mary Tyler Moore or any number of other old TV series. There is a spectacular range of interesting programs now available, for free or at very reasonable prices, programs and films that you can watch on any device, on your own time. The only problem: it’s tough to know what’s available because (sorry to hammer this) House of Cards and its kinfolk get too much of the press. So here’s my attempt to shift the course of that river, one TV set at a time.