Saturday, January 26, 2013

Get Out the Popcorn

It's here, it's finally here! For those of you who could barely contain your hunger, who had to do with reruns and Christmas specials and endless teasers, who willingly ceded the remote in prime time and looked magnanimous to the rest of your family, it's time to revert to form. Kick the others off the couch, wire the clicker to your palm like a suicide bomber and tell the others to stand back. For these are the weeks that the new mid-year TV season kicks off in earnest.

It used to be so much simpler. Everything started shortly after Labor Day, went for 13 or 26 weeks without interruption, and then you could regain your life. Now, with HBO and Netflix and Hulu, all bets are off, and it's hard to know when to book your spring vacation. Shows start in November, in March, in July. They skip a few weeks or months, or even an entire season ("go on hiatus" in TV jargon). The reasons range from talent issues (see Charlie Sheen), to not wanting to punch above their weight ("The Vampire Diaries" conveniently was on hiatus during sweeps week in November of 2011, the period when ratings are determined. That way, their numbers wouldn't speak ill of the un-dead.).

Still, January has emerged as a coming out party for many. And so if you are a fan of "Downton Abbey" or "Girls," it's time to get out the popcorn. Added to the new seasons of these popular programs are first-time offerings that the networks are hoping will catch fire with viewers. Be it the crime/paranormal thriller "The Following" or the medical/paranormal thriller "Do No Harm," the edgy comedy "1600 Penn" or the edgy comedy "Legit," the hope is that they will become water cooler must-sees (in an era where the water-cooler has been replaced by a latte bar or a Twitter feed).

Even if these series and their ilk don't succeed, at least they are escapist fare of some stripe. To be sure, these traditional shows are made of the whole cloth that is scripts and actors and sets. It's an expensive route that the networks are less and less happy about investing in, seeing as how the chances of success are so long. And so if you look at the 48 new series that are premiering in the month of January alone, you find that approach is the road less taken. The road more taken, and it is low to be sure, are the fully two-thirds of the total are denizens of the vast and cheap wasteland that is reality television.

And to be clear: these are 32 additional reality shows that have never seen the light of day until this month. That total doesn't include "American Idol" or "The Amazing Race," "Top Chef" or "Duck Dynasty." Those continue unabated towards Perez Hilton's door. No, these are brand new ones, shows that (thankfully) didn't exist until now. But since all it takes is a bunch of uninhibited live-out-loud citizens or has-been celebrities, a handful of mini cams and an army of production assistants to wade through hours of footage looking for embarrassing moments, even if you throw in an A-list host or two, these cost a relative pittance to make. And so "Extreme Smuggling," here we come.

That means that you can get to know Elura and Michele, "two fast-talking, no-nonsense attorneys who run a successful mediation business" on "Staten Island Law." On "Container Wars," you can watch "buyers gamble on shipping containers full of liquor and World War II antiques." You can root for your favorite out of "eleven fierce competitors from across the nerd spectrum" on "King of the Nerds." And while I don't know the exact angle, one can imagine that working out the kinks in long term relationships is not the focus on "Starter Wives Confidential."

It's possible that somewhere in that haystack is a needle of gold, but don't count on it. After all, the bar for success isn't another "West Wing" or "The Wire;" it's "Jersey Shore" or "Real Housewives of Orange County." The only saving grace is that since these almost all run on cable, they aren't floating around free in the air and drifting out to space. As such, the odds of another species somewhere plucking them out of the ether is slim, since they would then decide there really is no intelligent life out there in the cosmos.


Marc Wollin of Bedford watches almost no TV. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Defense of Puttering

Of course, there's a lot to do. To be fair, your life and obligations are different from mine, and so you have different imperatives. Still, a list of some type is staring you in the face as we speak. In my case, there are bills to pay, dishes to be put away and laundry to be done. OK, OK, in truth, I'm prohibited from helping with the laundry; throw a red shirt in with white socks just once (well, actually multiple times), and you're branded for life.

But you get the idea. Regardless of how your household runs and what tasks you are entrusted with, draw by default or pick up the slack when somebody else forgets it's their turn to take out the garbage, and the truck is coming, and if you don't get it to the curb in time it'll stack until next week and the cans will overflow and the raccoons will get into it and then what happens? Huh? Then what? Huh? Sorry, I digress. Personal issues. Where was I? Oh yes: the point is that there is a never ending list of things to do.  

Still, why is it that we can always find something else to occupy us? To be sure, it's partially because there are so many things to be occupied by. Doesn't have to be anything shiny or new, just something that has the potential of going from ignoring to focusing. Something that brings us pleasure to delve into, perhaps because unlike so many other to-do's, there's a start, an end and an actual result, all compressed into a tight time frame. And that is the very definition of puttering: "To occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks."

I should point out that, for me at least, this has historical roots. Let's say for school I had to look up some word in the dictionary, like "philosophy." When I flipped the pages, I came to "pharyngology" (the study of the throat), then "phenotype" (the way something looks), and so on. Each was certainly at least as interesting as philosophy, and demanded attention. And that's just because I wound up in the "ph's." If I had flipped differently and would up in the "j's?" Well, I might never get my homework done.  And don't even get me started on the encyclopedia.

Now, you can argue that that is distraction, not puttering, and you'd have a point. But it's the root. Now, I have a myriad of projects that are just lying there, many I don't even know exist until I stumble onto them. I'll be working away diligently at my desk, creating a budget or crafting a proposal or reviewing a draft, all good, productive things. I'll reach for something, like a stapler, and notice that that once again, I put it behind the calculator. A flash: wouldn't be it be nice if there was a slot for each so they reduced the clutter on my desk? And I seem to recall that, yes, in the storeroom down the hall, I saw a small shelf. Not quite right, but if I remove the left side, change the screws to something a little longer, and add some spacers, it might work! And voila! Before you can say "afternoon wasted" I'm deep into it.

Perhaps wasted is too strong. Many of these little projects actually do have a benefit. By figuring out a better way to prop up my pad in front of my exercise bike, I can read with less eyestrain as I pedal and make that downtime more productive. By sorting out the piles of cables in my office, I can more easily grab the one I need when I need it. By hanging up all my hats, I keep them in better shape and can more easily grab the one I want when I want it. Hardly on par with inventing Facebook, I know, but I'll take my triumphs where I can find them.

So putter on, I say. Just learn to keep it in perspective, and master the ability to tamp it down when something needs to get done, be it cooking dinner, cleaning out my backpack or writing a... hmmm. That fan on my desk would work a lot better if I hung it over there.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves projects, as long as they're his. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Important Stuff

The election is all but a distant memory. The bruising fights in Congress over taxes and the budget are water under the bridge. Even the Speakership was decided with only a minor whimper. And so what are the big issues that confront us as we settle down to business in the new year? Well, for starters, what are the implications of a Kardashian-West baby? Will Snookie and JWooww find enough excitement in Morristown, NJ, a major location for season 2 of their spinoff? And is it really the end for Bethenny Frankel and Jason Hoppy? (No, I have no idea who they are either, but it's the lead on the "Us" magazine web site, so it's gotta be important)

All critical stuff, to be sure. But being the pop culture connoisseur that I am, I think I can safely say that these are all just distractions from what will be on the minds of all of us as we get closer and closer to that critical July date: what about the Royal baby?

That's right. Sometime in the early summer, if those carefully watching and charting the progress of her morning sickness can be relied upon, Kate Middleton and Prince William will produce yet another heir to the English throne. As this is not the first great grandchild of the queen, you could be tempted to wave it off as just another royal-watching event. But you would be wrong. That's because, by virtue of lineage, starting with Elizabeth's first born (Charles), to his first born (William), to his first born (the as-yet-to-be-born aforementioned baby), this kid will hold the distinction of being third in line for the throne should the need for such a successor ever come to pass. So come July we'll be witnessing not just the debut of another Windsor to get in trouble, but a potential future King or Queen of England, one who would come of age just about the time Justin Bieber is tapped to be the new James Bond.

As such, there are any number of important issues troubling you. And so as a public service, so you can be knowledgeable around the water cooler or on your Twitter feed, here are some of the most pressing questions answered. This way you can confidently say you are staying ahead of the curve on perhaps the world's most useless monarchy.

What will be the royal baby's title? According to the Letters Patent of 1917, "the titles ‘Royal Highness' (HRH) prince and princess should be restricted to the children of the sovereign; the children of the sovereign's sons; and the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales." So since Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the titles of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on William and Kate Middleton when they were married, their first born will officially be "His/Her Royal Highness the Prince/Princess of Cambridge."

What will be the baby's name? Not so easy an answer here. Of course, nothing is definitive until His/Her Royal Highness makes an appearance. But for a boy, Ladbrokes, the English bookmaker, has John, Charles and George tied at 10 to 1 favorites, while Elizabeth is leading for girls at 7 to 1, with Diana, Anne and Victoria not too far behind at 12 to 1. But don't fret: you can still put down your money for long shots like Arsene or Raffa, the respective names of the current coaches of the Arsenal and Chelsea football clubs, at 500 to 1.

Is there an official souvenir? Well, official may not be the right word. "First" works, as does "tacky." But there's no denying that Party Pieces, the company owned by Middleton's parents, is offering both a pink and a blue version of a plate inscribed "A New Little Prince/Princess" with a crown in the middle. There has been a fair amount of backlash, which may account for the fact that both models have been discounted from the original £2.15, with the pink model costing just £1.49 and the blue £1.69. Does the price difference amount to insider info as to whether it will be a boy or a girl? You decide.

That should help keep you in the know for now. But not to worry, we know we have a responsibility. So next week we'll tackle another all-important question: who will be wearing which designer at the Oscars.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is proud he never watched Jersey Shore. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Beware of Orko

Katrina is retired. Likewise, so are Hortese, Gloria and Fifi. No, these weren't teachers in the local elementary school, your mother's bridge friends or Diana Ross' back-up singers. Rather, they are just some of the 76 hurricane names sunsetted because of their destructive power and negative associations. It's a list that Sandy is expected to join, even though there is some debate as to whether that storm was really a hurricane, or a hybrid cyclone-nor'easter-tropical depression, a distinction without a difference if ever there was one.

Since 1950, the U.S. Weather Bureau has been naming Atlantic storms using an evolving protocol. In the beginning it followed the military radio alphabet of Able, Baker and Charlie. Then in 1953, they changed to a list of women's names, following a World War II custom wherein U.S. Army Air Corp and Navy meteorologists named Pacific cyclones after girlfriends and wives. That in itself was a practice inspired by "Storm," a 1941 novel in which a junior meteorologist names one "Maria" after a former girlfriend. And even that had roots: reportedly, the first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by an Australian forecaster in the early in the 20th century. He gave storms the names of political figures whom he disliked, enabling him to say publicly that a politician was "causing great distress and wandering aimlessly about the Pacific."

More recently, in a bow to gender equity, cyclones added male names in 1978, with hurricanes following in 1979. The U.S. Weather Service is the keeper of these aggressive flames for storms originating in the Atlantic, but the situation in the Pacific isn't so simple. While the World Meteorological Organization has a master list for large scale events, many countries also have their own naming schemes for storms originating in their waters. And so a hypothetical storm that was the second of the season and originated near Brisbane, threatened Papua New Guinea, then veered to Mindanao before taking aim at Jakarta could be known as Billy-Buri-Butchoy-Bakung.

However, all that refers to summer storms, spawned over warm water and affecting large areas comprising multiple national land masses. Domestically it's a different story in winter, when snow and ice rushes in from Canada, starts in Detroit and shoves its way towards Boston and New York. Up till now it's been left to local papers to pick up the slack. The result? You get monikers such as "The Presidents' Day Storm" or "Christmas Storm" which hardly grabs the headlines. The New York Post does its best to pitch in, with banners like "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm." But there is no single voice to unite our regional misery.

Until this year, that is. The Weather Channel, sensing a national need (and a marketing opportunity) is stepping into the void, and has started naming winter storms. In a press release they say that this should "make communication and information sharing much easier, especially in the era of social media. For example, hash tagging a storm based on its name will provide an easy way to gather all of the latest information on an impending high-impact weather system." According to their Winter Weather Expert Tim Nizol (Twitter bio: Snow is my passion as well as my hobby), "Naming winter storms will raise awareness, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact on the public overall."  

As to the names themselves, TWC released its initial list, which includes lots of historical and mythical references. There's "Draco," for the first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece, "Freyr" for the Norse god associated with fair weather, and "Orko" for the thunder god in Basque mythology. But it's not all high-brow: a potential 17th storm is to be named "Q," after the Broadway Express subway line in New York City.

While it seems harmless, there is a potential downside. Having a commercial entity in charge does open the door to commercialization of the process. For instance, note that the "G" storm is "Gandolf" from the 1896 fantasy novel "The Well at the World's End," and not "Gandalf" of "Lord of the Rings" fame. Otherwise, we could face a threat to our sovereignty: just like the Japanese once owned Rockefeller Center, we could have to pay royalties to New Zealander Peter Jackson for our own weather.


Marc Wollin of Bedford almost missed the memo about naming winter storms. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer, online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.