louie louie

There’s a package of personal skills that I’d call “being good at life” – some combination of being open-minded, open-hearted, honest and adventurous. Here I’m not trying to define exactly what’s in the package; I’m just saying such a thing exists, and you know this when you meet someone who is good at life. These people glow with contagious energy, you can feel it within a minute in their presence, and in half an hour you are imbued with some measure of their magic. They are so good at life that the irrepressible force of life overflows the boundaries of their bodies and penetrates into the lucky souls nearby.

This happens in the two-episode story arc completed this week on Louie, which is very close to entering my pantheon of favorite TV shows over the last decade (in chronological order: The Sopranos, Firefly, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men). If you don’t watch Louie CK’s brilliant show, and you don’t want to know what happens in it before you watch it, then you shouldn’t read the rest of this. Just go watch Louie – the first two seasons are on Netflix, the third is available on Amazon Instant Video.

Louie is a bit of a sad sack – divorced, out of shape, mid-forties, and haplessly looking for love. In the first episode of this story, he goes to a bookstore to buy something for his daughter. He turns down an offer of help from the first salesperson who inquires because he sees the other beside him, a librarian-sexy woman played by Parker Posey. He mumbles about finding a book about flowers for his daughter, and she really engages with the request, asking questions about his daughter and suggesting something that seems just right. It’s not a perfunctory execution of her task as a retail drone – she brings authentic humanity to a routine interaction. Louie’s days are filled with dross and here is a pure rivulet of gold.

Some time later, he’s back at the store panning for more, and she remembers him, her greeting lighting up his heart immediately. Finding a book for his other daughter, she draws on the shared personal history of being a girl just starting to grapple with life and femininity, and suggests another title that will surely be perfect. Truly infatuated now, Louie returns to the store a third time and stumbles out the best possible pitch for a date that can be made by an overweight balding older man to a vivacious younger woman. She says yes.

It’s wonderful … and in some ways it’s the high point of this relationship, as this moment is on average the high point of all possible relationships – the moment when both people think there might be something there, when the entire history is nothing but short sweet vignettes of warmth and attraction, when none of the best things have happened yet and all of them seem possible, when none of the worst things have happened yet and none of them seem plausible.

In the next episode, Louie picks her up at the bookstore at the end of her shift, and almost immediately, certainly inevitability, the reality of the person fills out differently than the fantasy of the dream. She actually is a wonderful person – vibrant, compassionate, authentic, funny and adventurous – and their date quickly becomes a classic New York journey, the city so alive that it’s almost like the third wheel in their evening, a meandering trawl through a bar, vintage clothing store, gourmet delicatessen and spectacular rooftop views. Parker Posey plays a woman who is just so damn good at life that it’s bursting from her seams, and the magic of her performance is how she shows the dark beauty of those seams and the fragile stitching that holds this woman together. She’s good at life because she has to be, because she’s learned to be, because it’s the only way she can survive.

Being good at life is a learned skill, no one is born this way. Some people learn from a blank slate, or even better from a foundation prepared well by a loving family and fortuitous circumstances. But some people learn in order to recover from misfortune, from illness or abuse or poverty or genetic disadvantage. For this group, being good at life is a survival skill, a necessity more than a blessing, medicine to cure a fatal condition.

losers, killers, drugs, cars

What does it mean to say that TV lost to computers, as Paul Graham suggests?  Graham tries to explain why the Internet “won” in the battle of media convergence, but he begs the question of whether media “convergence” was a valid proposition in the first place, or what it was even supposed to mean.

Take a close look at any claim that one kind of media “lost to” or “killed” another.  Were they ever really in competition?  Sure, every kind of experience is a competitor for our limited time, but I’d call this “attention competition” rather than “replacement competition.”

I might choose to watch basketball rather than baseball in the limited time I watch sports, but basketball didn’t kill baseball:  although basketball had a later start and has grown more in recent decades, both sports businesses are larger than they have ever been before.  Things that compete for my attention do not kill each other, they just give me more choices.

In contrast, I use a safety razor to shave my face.  A safety razor is better than its predecessor, the straight razor, in every way – shaving is faster, cleaner, closer, easier, safer – except possibly price, which I am happy to pay for those benefits.  I am not the only person to make this choice, by and large the entire shaving market has.  Although some people stick to the straight razor for reasons of fashion, self-esteem, or violent secondary uses, the straight razor has been replaced by the safety razor to such a large extent that you can say the latter killed the former.  Losers and killers in the market can only exist among things that accomplish the same function.

A lot of media is entertainment, and “entertainment” is not a function, it’s a category.  Historically, there has been a huge amount of attention competition within the entertainment category, but much of this competition has only given us more choices in an expanding market for leisure.  Novels did not replace plays, radio did not replace books, movies did not replace radio, TV did not replace movies.  Most if not all of those businesses are larger in absolute terms than they’ve ever been, even though many are smaller in audience share.

On the other hand, vinyl albums nearly got replaced by 8-tracks and then cassette tapes, then all of these lost to CDs, and now CDs are losing to music downloads and streaming on computing devices.  All of those formats simply fulfill the function of delivering music, so here you really can say that a new format killed an old format, and various businesses were winners and losers along the way.

If you’re thinking that it’s not so simple, you’re right.  Let’s go back and examine the entertainment category again.  TV may not have completely replaced radio, but a certain kind of radio show no longer exists in any noticeable volume:  the radio drama, of the type that the Shadow knows.  Were these replaced by TV shows?  Probably.  And for that matter, books and their predecessor scrolls and tablets did replace cave drawings.  So how can you really tell when you have competitors for attention within a category, rather than replacement competitors in a race to be the best format for the same function?

I think one key is to ask whether the format gives rise to a distinct art form.  I don’t mean to make lofty judgments about art, but more mundane observations about senses and brain responses.  (I could say “neurosensory experience” rather than “art,” but that would be replacing pretension with didacticism.)  The novel engages the brain in conveying a narrative in a way that the brain is not engaged in hearing or watching essentially the same story.  Plays have a sensory experience in a way that is not captured in TV or movies.  But radio dramas never really attempted to deliver any experience that wasn’t the same experience done better by a TV drama, so when people began enjoying TV shows, that did kill radio shows.  There is arguably no distinct form of art tied to radio – music obviously can be delivered well in many formats – so it’s likely that radio will actually be killed by superior forms of distribution for audio content.

So does TV have a distinct art form?  Well, over the last few decades we have seen the rise of ever longer dramas that tell a story with character depth that have been quite distinct to TV (especially as opposed to movies or plays).  From Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos, viewers became accustomed to following character development and story lines over years rather than one-hour episodes.  This “long form passive story viewing” is distinct to TV – and even though you can watch these same TV shows on your computer, that doesn’t mean that the Internet ”’killed”’ TV.  It matters whether we are talking about the art form of TV, or the delivery vehicle of TV.

See, this my objection to Graham’s argument.  He says that “Facebook killed TV,” meaning that the social applications made possible by the interactivity of the Internet led to the downfall of TV.  But this mixes and matches the format and the substance; it is an inapt attempt to make a larger artistic and social commentary.  Social applications are an attention competitor for the long form passive story viewing that is on TV today, but neither will kill the other.  To say that TV loses to the computer is only saying that the screen in your house on which you watch TV shows will also be the screen that you use for Facebook – it’s a somewhat interesting comment, but not more interesting than cassettes beating 8-tracks.

My view here is complex and probably not stated very well, so I’ve come up with a simple question to ask when considering the losers and killers that others see:  Are we talking about drugs or cars?

Popular recreational drugs have distinct effects on the brain, and all are competitors for the attention of recreational drug users.  Some people prefer particular drugs, but in the overall drug market, meth doesn’t kill heroin doesn’t kill cocaine doesn’t kill weed – all of these have their audiences because each elicits a distinct effect on the brain.  (For some reason, only heroin seems to be a popular point of comparison for technology in general, Internet addiction, or porn on the Net.  I think comparisons should be more exact:  TV is heroin, social networking is coke, Internet porn is meth, and so on . . . but I don’t really have the time or social position to research this properly.)

Before safety razors and CDs, cars are the prototypical replacement choice – the advent of cars killed the horse-and-buggy, literally a superior delivery vehicle.  If it’s not this kind of outright replacement, then there shouldn’t be talk of losers and killers.

TV’s Napster Moment

I really don’t believe we’re going to see this much stupidity again so soon after the exact same stupidity launched the death of an entire industry.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me recap very briefly and excessively linkfully and painfully parenthetically:  Boxee has this cool product that enables you to watch Internet video streams on your TV.  Another company, called Hulu (f.k.s.a ClownCo – the “s” stands for snarkily), has deals with a lot of TV networks to stream TV shows on its website.  Both companies he said she said that Hulu content is now being blocked from Boxee.  The obvious read is that the ”’content providers”’ (I just invented triple-quotes to indicate sarcastic air quotes!) that are partnered with Hulu demanded this blocking to protect high-priced distribution channels.

It’s Napster all over again, replaying from the music industry into the TV industry.  For those with short memories:  In probably the worst decision in a relentless trail of self-destruction, record labels had two choices when they saw the early popularity of the original Napster (not today’s incarnation) service for music file sharing:  make a deal with Napster or shut it down with litigation.  The labels chose to destroy the popular service, which turned out to be like trying to prevent a flood by blowing up the nearest dam.  Napster alternatives quickly sprang up that were impossible for the labels to deal with, and the rest is history, just like the labels will be.

Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”  This used to be a mournful statement, because it’s actually pretty hard to learn from history – there’s just so much history, no one can really hold all of the lessons of it in one head.  So you’re doomed to make mistakes that lots of people have made before.  And then by the time you’re old enough to remember a lot of history, you’re starting to feel too old to do anything about it.

But one wonderful aspect of our accelerated modern lives is that history happens in ever-shorter cycles.  I doubt there’s anyone in a decision-making capacity at the TV networks who doesn’t remember the Napster lesson very well.  And I can’t believe they’d make the same mistake with that knowledge.  People can’t be that dense, can they?  A deal is going to get done here, if not with Boxee then maybe with BitTorrent.  I’m going to lose faith in humanity if that doesn’t happen.

[Edited to correct slight misquote of Santayana.  <sigh> Those who rely on random websites for quotes are doomed to misquote.]