John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Internet TV feels like the future is here

February 9th, 2011

Cable providers and television networks have been dreading this moment, but it seems like momentum has really built up among consumers in favor of internet-based television solutions.

I recently purchased a Roku box myself, and now that I’ve been using that instead of traditional cable for about a month, all I can say is that it is like getting paid $50 a month to improve my TV experience.

Cost and Benefit

So instead of paying $60 every month to Comcast for their declining selection of programs, I’m paying about $10 to Netflix so I can watch exactly what I want, when I want, without any kind of commercial interruptions.

Of course, in addition to Netflix there are a whole bunch of choices available. Hulu has a premium set-top service, and you can also access popular video sites like Youtube, Funny or Die, and CNN video. Still not enough? Amazon Video on Demand has all sorts of high definition new releases available for just a few bucks each. Instead of paying a huge monthly bill to the cable company, you can actually decide what is worth spending money on and what you can skip right over.

It turns out the Wii also plays Netflix and Youtube, so for two TVs we only had to shell out cash for the Roku box and a wireless router. All counted, the transition cost $200 up front and will start to save money after four months of skipping cable payments.

Beyond DVD

Now, one of my favorite features of the Roku box, and a big advantage it has over the Wii, is that you can plug a USB drive right in to the device and watch MP4 videos. Since these USB drives can hold more gigs than a blu-ray disc, I feel like I’m starting to see the end of the DVD era. Now the few DVDs I do have are being stored up on hard drives and converted for USB viewing. Who needs a boxed set of multiple discs per season when you can put a dozen seasons on one thumb-sized flash drive? Also, you can save up your favorite internet videos to make a custom play list or even to have some back up in case the web goes down for a while. Now, the Wii is theoretically capable of playing USB movies as well, but you’ll have to make some modifications to the software and there’s more risks & effort involved.

Upgrade the smart way

So if you’re thinking about making the switch from cable to internet TV, now is a great time to start researching and making plans. You probably don’t want to rush in because there are a lot of little details to pay attention to, but with the proper planning and analysis of your existing devices and televisions, you can probably maximize your TV entertainment at a really great price.

“Check It Out,” “Tim & Eric:” Intentionally bad TV is still bad

June 7th, 2010

The good news is that Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! has finally run its course and played the finale of its last season. The bad news is that they’ve inspired a spin-off starring the slightly funnier John C. Reiley: Check It Out.

Now, I’m usually a fan of AdultSwim and I can look passed the typically low production values and even the low-brow “least common denominator” type of humor. I confess: campy can be funny at times.

Its one thing to have a good idea for a show and go ahead any way despite the silliness of it or the low quality of the content production, but its a whole other problem when “bad TV” becomes the concept behind the low-budget show. And bad TV is exactly what this franchise is all about: Whether they’re “parodying” late night infomercials or cheesy local newscasts, the reproduction of bad TV is just too accurate to be that funny.

Unfortunately, Pitchfork decided to rate Tim & Eric as one of the best TV shows of the decade, so that means an entire generation of culturally dead hipsters know that its the best thing ever even if they can’t describe why beyond saying “its ironic.” Really, what is ironic about finding informercial-like TV on at 12:30 and 4:30 AM? That’s not ironic at all – its exactly what you’d expect to see. Someone told me it was hilarious to see Fred Willard spoofing his own commercials & infomercials, but twenty years ago they ran that joke on Married with Children when he played a Florida swampland timeshare salesman – so don’t tell me Tim & eric is avant garde for re-running a decades’ old gag.

“Ahh, but the joke is the awkward social interaction!” I’ve been told. Great. This is the same reason people like “The Office.”

I’ll tell you what. If you’re really entertained by awkward social interactions, why don’t you just go to the mall and talk to random strangers? Why not go get a job in some random office building? You can have 9 hours a day of awkward socializing and you can even get paid for it, too!

What might be worst of all is that Tim & Eric seem to have some decent comedic tastes – but they only recognize it in other peoples’ work. The guest stars really are the best part of the program, but they’re never written in to any funny roles or situations. Its a glimmer of potential that literally gets drowned out in a sea of poop jokes.

Speaking of Cultural Decline and Rebirth

There’s still an up side to this whole cultural moment – and that is that we’re probably past the worst of the cultural decline. There’s good reason to believe that society repeats itself in approximately 80 year cycles, so we’re currently about 40 years from Woodstock and just about at the bottom point of social output in music, art, and television. If the summer of 1969 has an “opposite” social moment, it would be the thin and plastic mass-media culture that currently dominates through reality TV, spoofs with deadpan accuracy, and auto-tuned “singing” over slow-tempo three-chord riffs.

We’ve come a long way since Jimmi Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald, and Creedence Clearwater Revival shared a stage – and there aren’t a whole lot of people who would say artistic expression is better these days, no matter what age they’re at. For the first time in a while though, its starting to become acceptable for us to demand more – to criticize low standards and insist on some sort of deeper meaning and effort.  So maybe we’re not headed in to a new golden age of jazz and rock & roll.. but things can’t get much worse than Tim & Eric… can they?

tl;dr (for the hipsters):

Tim & Eric isn’t funny.  Everything they did has been done before, and by people with a better sense of humor & timing.  The only original joke here is the one they are playing on their fans, and the punchline hits every time a fan speaks up to defend the shows that are a perfect symbol for the low-point in society’s cultural output.

Sorry, I guess that tl;dr required a whole 30 seconds of attention span.

Are You Watching Death Note Yet?

July 5th, 2009

What happens when you give a bored and over-achieving honor student the power to kill anonymously across vast distances?

If the answer involves Japanese heavy metal, high quality animation, and Gods of Death, you’ve got Death Note; an animated series from across the Pacific. It was recently dubbed to English and is currently distributed by my favorite late-night network, [adult swim].

A magical book literally falls to the earth and Light Yagami is the one to find it – the instructions printed on the book inform him that anyone whose name is written on its pages will be killed.

While skeptical at first, Light Yagami finds the temptation to punish the villain and save the victims is overwhelming.

Eventually seeing himself as an ideal arbiter of justice, Light begins his quest to rid the entire world of every single criminal and person he’s deemed evil or unfit to live in the utopia he dreams of.

[adult swim] is even generous enough to put significant chunks of the story online for sharing. Check out this video of Light realizing the scope of the power he’s acquired and how he initially justifies its use:

Philosophical questions, psychological drama, and even cliff-hanging detective-story themes run against a backdrop of religious and spiritual imagery. Light’s quest to create a perfect world is popular with some, but the pattern of his killings also attracts the attention of international law enforcement institutions who aren’t too thrilled with the concept of an independent and unaccountable angel of death.

As the magnitude of Light’s power grows, a mysterious and legendary detective known only as L makes it his personal mission to arrest Light and bring him to justice for all the deaths of criminals he’s been responsible for.

Hero or villain, savior or devil – you might not know who to root for through large parts of the story arc.

These clips come from the first episode or two – so don’t worry about this little introduction spoiling too much of the story. There are plenty of twists and turns and unexpected developments ahead!

Unfortunately the show is only airing at 3:30 am on Sunday mornings (Saturday night) but I understand that the DVDs are also available now. I’m personally waiting for the price to come down a bit or for a box set including all episodes to come out, but if you haven’t seen the series yet I’d recommend getting yourself a copy of it as soon as you can!