Don’t kill your TV

Ten arguments that will turn even the most militant TV-hater into a cable subscriber

Illustration By Carey Wilson

It’s time for me to share. I no longer fear reprisal from my culturally particular peers. The cable television you thought you knew is dead, and there’s a whole world of new cable flourishing in its place.

Cable is no longer just MTV, The Shopping Channel and the three movies a day you used to get. For roughly 50 bucks you can now wire your house up with digital cable (or digital satellite cable) and tap into a pipeline of arts and entertainment that is on par with the best choices in film, theater, music and literature currently slated as valid diversions for the discriminating sophisticate.

Call it a challenge—a countdown to enlightenment.

No. 10:
Never miss another Sacramento Kings game again
This one may be personal, but “70 regular season games (of 82 possible)” is all that needs to be said.

No. 9:
The most comprehensive coverage of absolutely everything constantly, like it or not
Turn on the television right now, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts you can still find at least one channel talking about O.J.

Just as with the Internet, or the drawers of microfiche and aisles of bound periodicals in the library, if you need to know something and are willing to wade through an ocean of rushing information crashing around your delicate head, cable TV has it.

The Weather Channel, CNN and ESPN News offer the regular weather, news and sports updates in an organized and timely manner 24-7, but that’s just light grazing in contrast to the nourishment available when someone really important like Johnny Cash dies. When Johnny Cash passed away last week, Country Music Television, A&E’s Biography channel and Bravo all devoted several days of programming to the legendary singer-songwriter’s life: Live at Tennessee State Penitentiary, old footage of a young Cash at the Grand Old Opry, extensive documentaries and videos and tributes played all day long.

No. 8:
Death and crime
The Learning Channel is A+ No. 1 when it comes to death. It has every kind of emergency room show you can imagine, with the true life E.R. of Trauma: Life in the E.R. as king. The show is filmed on location in various busy emergency rooms around the world. Doctors and nurses are shown in full color dealing with shootings, stabbings, heart attacks and live births while families lose it in the waiting room.

On the “crime and death” side, the most engrossing are the true crime mysteries on The Learning Channel: Crime Scenes Uncovered and Forensic Science. Discovery also tackles the genre with New Detectives: FBI Files, and A&E has the excellent Cold Case Files, which re-opens closed but not forgotten cases in hopes of solving the crime with new technology and a fresh look at the clues. Discovery’s Crime Scene Clean-up is by far the hardest (and coolest) to watch and wins the total gross-out award.

No. 7:
Real reality TV
If the nauseating contrivance and brattiness of the network reality television nightmare is making you sick, try these plots on.

Discovery has a million of ’em, but the most consistently interesting are the ones on The Learning Channel such as Trauma…, its new spin-off Resident Life, and Junkyard Wars, the show that plops two crews (pitting grease monkeys against NASA engineers, for example) in the middle of a well-stocked junkyard and has them compete against one another in a race to make a better catapult, amphibious car or mobile bridge, using nothing more than what the junkyard provides.

Illustration By Carey Wilson

A&E’s Parole Board is also fascinating, letting you eavesdrop on the hearings of inmates as they plead their cases to the members of the board.

No. 6:
Forget MTV. Fuse, a music video network that actually plays music videos, does it right with among other things Oven Fresh, a show devoted to playing “up and coming” artists, and MTV2, which actually manages to do the same with its late-night Subterranean.

The Sundance film channel is untouchable when it comes to documentaries. Featured this month is If I Should Fall from Grace with God, which follows former Pogues front man Shane McGowan through his time with that legendary Irish band and afterwards as he as he stumbles his way through his beautiful and sometimes sad life as ambassador for Ireland’s musical history.

Also on Sundance is Sonic Cinema, hosted by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame. The half-hour episodes showcase music videos, short films and cool inside views of independent musicians and their relationships with artists involved in the creation of musical images for video and film.

No. 5:
The artists
NBC’s Bravo interviews actors, directors and other artists in both its Profiles and Inside the Actors Studio series, but it’s Sundance’s ingenious Anatomy of a Scene series that really gets intimate. Directors lead you through the actual making of a memorable scene from one of their movies, explaining how they did everything from the lighting to the mistake that made them change an entire scene. Films in the series have included: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, American Splendor and Memento.

No. 4:
Your life rebroadcast
It is very comforting to relive the historical markers that the music we listened to and the triumphs we witnessed provide for us, and one afternoon spent with VH1-Classic is very comforting indeed. With hourly themes such as We Are the ‘80s and Rock Fest, you can relive the era where you still knew what the cool fashions were: Duran Duran followed by the Go Gos followed by Terence Trent D’Arby. Nice.

And for the insomniac, on ESPN-Classic there’s Classic NBA or Classic NFL or Classic Golf, showing one classic game after another in its entirety: “Bird passes to Dennis Johnson! He scores. Celtics win!”

No. 3:

HBO original programming
The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and the new Carnivale, possibly three of the best dramas in the history of television, all on one network. Further separating HBO from the pack is America Undercover, the award-winning documentary series with special sub-series like Autopsy and Real Sex, which goes into the bedrooms and closets of both the average and the extreme sexuality of our repressed little country, offering an intimate and sometimes shocking examination of real people and their real sex lives.

No. 2:
Forget the big-ticket channels like Showtime, Cinemax, etc. For film there are only two channels to remember: I.F.C., the Independent Film Channel, and Sundance, showcasing tons of short films that you could never see in this area otherwise, plus any interesting movie you might ever want to see. Some examples this month: Dancer in the Dark, Barton Fink and Friends Forever, a documentary about the band Friends Forever that lives and plays its shows in a VW van, finding a suitable place to park and just playing, drums still in the van, for whoever happens to be around.

No. 1, or Ground Zero:
So you don’t have cable, and this little countdown has failed to convince you to call your local digital or satellite corporation. You probably think you have everything you need with your precious Public Broadcasting Service. You’re right. Save some sports programming, a compatible version of every choice mentioned previously is offered on your local public-funded arts source.

Just a cursory listing of a few of the choices available is impressive: Point of View, Egg: The Arts Show, Frontline, Art in the 21st Century—all densely constructed, quality programs. There’s also Soundstage, which this month features live performances by Wilco and Sonic Youth, and Frontier House, which pits modern families against each other by removing them from their urban environs and placing them on the Montana frontier and forcing them to prepare for the winter using only what was available to the original frontiersmen in 1883. Add movies, news programs, documentaries, multiple Ken Burns series and no commercials, and it’s hard to argue with what the rabbit ears provide.

What’s good on cable owes a lot to PBS. The standard was set long ago and has been building upon its foundation for a long time. Thankfully, the rest of television is, in places, gradually starting to catch up.