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My Own Private Idaho-Shaped TV Remote

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Build a better TV clicker, and the world will just sit there, a glassy look on its face and maybe a little drool running down its chin. As if the First Law of Thermodynamics needed any more demonstration, new TV clickers are appearing at an alarming rate, and doing alarming things. The Third Age of the Remote has begun.

My father used to work for an American television manufacturer -- back when there were American television manufacturers -- and he tells stories of some of the first remote controls. These primitive things, consisting of a lone channel-up button, were advertised with the assurance that the space-age technology packed into their little metal cases was "not harmful to humans!" What the ads didn't say was that the technology wasn't harmful to humans because it was just sound, very high-frequency sound. You could get the channel to change by breaking a plate. You could punish the dog by zapping him a few times.

But as times changed and the number of reasons to switch the station grew -- the technology may not have been harmful to humans, but the shows sure as hell were -- clickers changed as well. They proliferated. They got complicated. They -- and this is a little scary -- evolved.

And they're still evolving, filling niches and adapting to new realities.

The new breed of remote controls aren't so much TV clickers as little snapshots of the American psyche. If you've got a cable channel that caters to your fetish for Japanese historical melodrama, by God, you certainly can't switch to it with a boring black clicker! Not content with simply changing the channel or muting the sound, the new generation of remotes tell the world who you are.

Which, judging from what's available, probably isn't a good thing.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the universe when actual products start to look like bad satire. Apparently targeted at people who get confused when they have to hold two things once, the TV Buddy is a universal remote that includes -- and I want to emphasize here that I am not making this up -- an integrated bottle opener and corkscrew.

Maybe I'm missing the point, but what combination of television and alcohol involves a cork? The type of person who is actually going to use the TV Buddy is the type of person who is going to use the corkscrew to carve his initials into the arm of his chair. A better feature might have been either bar-b-que tongs or a few buttons to jump directly to TNN, wrestling or Jerry Springer.

Of course, the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum is no better. Take Control brings the same sort of oblivious yuppie overkill to TV clickers that Lexus brought to trucks. I'm a little surprised that it's not covered in leather.

Created in conjunction with Microsoft -- the same minds responsible for the reliability of Windows -- Take Control promises to be the first remote that will crash twice daily and require a RAM upgrade to install the next version. Featuring a touch screen, a roller bar and more snotty attitude than you can shake a stick at, it also poses a serious danger of being more amusing than the television or anything on it.

But rather than blow $350 on a Take Control, it might be more financially prudent -- and certainly more impressive to your oblivious yuppie friends -- to hire a handful of day-laborers to stand next to each piece of electronic equipment you own and have them change the channels for you.

And finally, with the inevitability of Yoda bubble bath and Darth Maul lingerie, of course there's a light saber TV remote. The only thing more obvious is an authorized Fat Elvis Colt 45 clicker, but I think that would just frustrate people since it wouldn't actually destroy the TV.

If I had an ounce of self-respect, I would do everything I could to deny that I actually own -- much less actually use -- a light saber clicker, but it's just way too much fun. It makes the familiar buzzing, whooshing noises when you change the channel, so you can pretend that you're saving the galaxy from evil when you flip away from Veronica's Closet. Which isn't too far from the truth.

And so: here we stand at the end of the twentieth century, individualism triumphant. Personalization is the order of the day, and if you belong to a demographic larger than one, you're not trying hard enough. We have entered an age in which a beer-swilling yahoo, a self-indulgent spendthrift and a perfectly normal person with perhaps just a tad too much enthusiasm for a certain science fiction franchise can all have their channel-changing needs shamelessly catered to. It's a perfect world.

Now if there was only something worth watching.


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