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My Defenses Are Down

Though we at TeeVee have long sung the praises of TiVo, we are only now beginning to see the long-term effects a TiVo can have on your television-watching experience. I came head-to-head with one of these effects this weekend. I am now no longer inured to the sinister power of commercials.

Anyone who's exposed to a toxic substance can build an immunity to it. Lobsters scuttling along the floor of the Atlantic seaboard eat PCBs for lunch, habitual stoners can smoke a bale of marijuana before getting mellow, couch potatoes can watch commercials without having their brain seize. But TiVo is television detox. Owing to its magical ability to manipulate space and time, viewers can fast-forward through the barnacles of banality clinging to the underbellies of the shows we're actually watching.

However, owing to a sustained period spent in a TiVo-free home (hi, Mom!), I have been subjected anew to that which tough TV-watchers can shrug off. And now, as I lay on the floor twitching in shock, I can only summon the wherewithal to issue a warning: Repeated use of TiVo can lower your resistance to the following televised atrocities.

Exhibit A: Network promos comprised of spurious lies and logical distortions. It's no secret that the promotions running on any network are, in fact, created by people telecommuting from Hell.

But there is a special circle reserved for the people who make the Friends promos. It was bad enough when they broke out the Enya -- because although Friends may be many things, a new-age comedy of manners it isn't -- but now, there's misty lens shots, and Rachel and Joey spending quality time together, and if one goes by the promotion, someone has turned Friends into the Reader's Digest version of Melrose Place. Is this the actual intent of the promotion, or the inadvertent result?

I don't know, and I don't care; I make it a policy to avoid anything that may have been exposed to Enya, however accidentally. This comprehensive avoidance policy is probably not what the people who craft show promotions had in mind.

Exhibit B: The United States Postal Service commercial. This commercial is vexatious because I just don't understand it. Carly Simon is singing for the government? Isn't she part of that cabal of sensitive, feel-good singers who hate the Man? And isn't this song the same one used in Working Girl, the cinematic paean to unrepentant 1980s ambition? The same film that decried blue-collar folk as classless schlubs? And wasn't the song used to glorify the cubicle farms of Manhattan, each tiny stall housing someone who would sooner sell their children's kidneys than deliver mail?

So what is this song -- ostensibly about the freedom to go and make fistfuls of money without moral qualm -- doing as a tribute to the kinds of people the song and the movie go out of their way to avoid? I mean, God bless the Postal workers and their indefatigability, but don't they deserve a more appropriate theme song?

Exhibit C: Olympic promotions. The Games aren't here, irate Europeans haven't butted heads with the baroque liquor laws of Utah, nor has some high-strung teenager won a medal for ice-dancing to an orchestral version of "Breathe," but the international incidents are already beginning. For example, NBC is shilling the forthcoming Games by having Neil Diamond and Melissa Etheridge duet on "America."

Somewhere, Julie Cypher is watching and wondering how being married to Lou Diamond Phillips turned into the high point of her life in the public eye.

Exhibit D: 1-800-CALL-ATT. I've never pretended to understand Carrot Top's allure. I've never even launched an investigation to determine if he has any allure whatsoever. But I do have half a mind to write the board members of AT&T and inquire of them if asking Carrot Top to pitch their collect-calling service is some sort of oblique business strategy designed to cripple said collect-calling business, so when the inevitable antitrust lawsuit hits, they can bring up 1-800-CALL-ATT as an example of one telecommunications market they don't own and thus avoid some sort of court-ordered breakup. There is no other rational explanation for why a company actively engaged in rebuilding Ma Bell and annexing the Internet, cable television, and a few stray former Soviet republics would do something so stupid as to use Carrot Top as a sales tool.

However, I am hopeful that a class-action suit filed on behalf of anyone who's ever watched the gangly, red-haired comedian suffer through an attack of St. Vitus' Dance before yelping out the corporate jingle will bring AT&T to its knees.

Exhibit E: Lexus commercials. There is one that blanketed the airwaves immediately before and after Christmas in which assorted people were all gifted with brand-spanking-new luxury cars -- a wife surprising her husband, a family surprising Dad, loving parents surprising their teenaged daughter. I have to confess: the premise of these commercials baffles me, on the following grounds.

One: We are in a recession, with Americans carrying the highest amount of consumer debt ever. Exactly how many households have the financial capability to keep the purchase of a Lexus secret? Two: you give someone a Lexus for Christmas this year, how are you going to top that next year? By buying one of those former Soviet republics AT&T will be selling off to pay the penalty on their lawsuit? Three: Consider the spectacle of a presumably upper-middle-class child receiving a Lexus for the holidays. And remember -- recession, high rate of unemployment, consumer debt, gift expectations. The only way giving a teenager a Lexus can work out well for all parties concerned is if the gift subsequently turns into a means of fear and punishment: "Get a 1500 on your SAT, Madison, or we take away the car," or "Taylor, if you don't get that National Merit scholarship, we're going to have to sell the Lexus and use the proceeds to send you to a state school."

These commercials only incite fear and confusion. And while those may be perfectly natural things to feel around the holidays -- at least, in my experience, they're as inevitable as a Muzak rendition of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- again, I have to wonder if this was the effect Lexus was striving for.

Oh, how I miss the days when commercials used to make crass consumerism look like fun.

Surveying the list above, there is one common thread running through all items: a big question mark floating over my head as I behold these things on the television. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have been confused by these phenomena. I wouldn't have even noticed them.

But a steady diet of TiVo -- which carries with it the expectation that all television is television I want to watch, when I want to watch it, how I want to watch it -- has made me soft and unsheltered. Because I am no longer watching network promotions, I am appalled anew at their incoherence. Since I typically fast-forward through commercials, when I'm forced to view them in real time, I'm struck with how ham-handed and illogical most sales pitches are. I am the television equivalent of a vegan who's just been force-fed a Big Mac and a pound of M&Ms; my system is overloaded and short-circuiting from the toxins flowing through it.

Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned about the hazards of prolonged exposure to TiVo. Either television has gotten really stupid, or I'm now noticing how stupid it was all along.

I'd tell you which it was, but I've just noticed two episodes of Twitch City on the TiVo and there's nothing like short-lived Canadian sitcoms to cleanse the palate. Ah, TiVo -- your blessings are mixed, but I wouldn't have it any other way.


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