From TiVo to American Beauty

I’ve been a big Babylon 5 fan for years, but because of the unreliability of the local affiliate’s broadcast of it during its first run (WWOR, which never seemed to understand that people like to know a program is going to be on at the same time every week!), I’d missed out on a lot of episodes. I’d watched my first episodes during the last half of season 2, and then watched a large part of season 3. By the end of that, I was completely hooked, and watched all of seasons 4 and 5. By that time I was surfing the Lurker’s Guide and reading to keep up on things (and JMS was read and posting pretty regularly back then), so I was pretty happy when SciFi Channel started rebroadcasting B5 on weeknights at 7pm — I’d rush home to be sure to be there.

Well, by late May 2001, I was getting very frustrated because I was just missing way too many episodes that I’d never seen before. So, I went out and bought a TiVo. A TiVo is what’s called a “digital video recorder.” Sounds dull and boring, but it really changed my life.

I know it sounds remarkably silly to say such a thing, but it did.

I’ve never been one to record with the VCR, because you have to always be switching tapes, and I knew way too many people who had scads of videotapes that they had never watched, and probably never would watch. And I’d recently moved (in Nov. 2000) and that process had made me realize how much junk I was carrying around with me that I really didn’t need. More videotapes was not the answer. But a DVR — that was the ticket.

I’m not sure how I even knew it was a good idea. Yes, I’d read about how great it was to pause live TV and to have instant replay of live TV, but as it turned out, I really didn’t have a clue about what it was really good for. A TiVo is actually a box that has a Linux PC inside, with a large hard drive on which the programs are recorded. Sounds simple, but if that’s all there was to it, it would really be just a VCR with a really lengthy tape, since the hard drive eventually does fill up.

What I quickly found out was that the promotions about skipping commercials (ReplayTV) and pausing live shows were really missing the point. The main thing to get the TiVo for was the fabulous program listings, which gave you lots of capabilities to find shows that you’d never find in the stupid TV Guide.

Now, there’s a real rant: I’ve never understood the success of TV Guide. The local newspaper listings have always seemed vastly superior to me because they are in a sensible grid format, whereas I’ve never been able to find a thing in the TV Guide, where the listings are so poorly laid out.

Well, TiVo makes that irrelevant because it makes it quite easy to find shows that match your viewing desires, rather than simply finding out what is on right now.

This is actually why the promotions that make such a big deal about pausing/rewinding live TV are so off-the-beam, because that’s not what a TiVo is really for. A TiVo is useful for finding programs that you would otherwise not know about, programs that are on at times of day when you’re not watching (say 7am!), or on channels that it never occurs to you to check. If you use your TiVo properly, there are always plenty of programs recorded and waiting for you, programs that match your own viewing preferences, things you specifically requested be recorded. Because of that, there’s never any need to resort to watching what’s being broadcast right at this very moment.

Anyway, once I got the TiVo I was very happy to have all my Babylon 5 programs recorded, but then started thinking about the other things I wanted to record. For one, I’d always wondered about why everyone thought Bette Davis was so fantastic. Yes, I’d seen some of her movies and they were good, but it always seemed like she was playing Bette Davis, rather than any particular roles. So, I set up what TiVo calls a Wish List to record all of her films. A Wish List can be for a category (Science Fiction), an actor (Dirk Bogarde), a director (Alfred Hitchcock) or a title (Easy Rider). And if the listings the TiVo downloads happen to have a match on any of your wishlists, the TiVo will record it for you.

The TiVo also has Season Passes for weekly series. It has several really good advantages over the VCR. For instance:

  • It will catch rebroadcasts if the original broadcast is cancelled, or adjust the time if the originally planned time is changed (e.g., next week The Sopranos goes an extra 20 minutes, easy to miss with a traditional VCR).
  • If you arrange your priorities right for the Season Passes, you can record programs that are on at the same time if one of them has a rebroadcast. For instance, once Queer as Folk starts up again, it will clash with The Practice. But since QaF is rebroadcast, I can set The Practice as the higher priority and it will be recorded at 10pm on Sunday, and QaF will be picked up on the rebroadcast.
  • For programs like EYEWITNESS NEWS you can set it to record all broadcasts but keep no more than one at a time. I do this for the local and national news broadcasts, and the result is that when I turn on the TiVo I always have the last 6:00/11:00 news broadcast and the last 6:30 national newscast.

With all of these features what I found was that, instead of turning on the TV and watching it over my shoulder while doing something actually interesting at the PC, or reading the newspaper while “watching,” I would actually want to sit down in front of the TV and really watch a movie or program. This is because it was a program that I really wanted to see, and not just whatever happened to be on that was not execrable.

And I quickly found out exactly why Bette Davis is considered so great. And became puzzled why Frank Capra is lauded so much (he seemed to me to be making the same sentimental movie over and over again). And learned why Marlon Brando was such a sensation when young and such a laughing stock in his old age.

Yes, TiVo changed my relationship to the TV — it is no longer on until I want to watch. And I don’t watch until 8 or 9pm, when I go into the living room and relax for a couple or three hours of actual entertainment.

And I’ve found out that I like movies. I really like movies. I’ve been trying to fill in gaps of important/famous movies that I’d never seen (The Graduate, Apocalypse Now, Birth of a Nation, The Third Man and a whole host of others).

And that brings me to the purpose of this whole entry, to explain how I got to the point where I want to write at length on the movie American Beauty. I had never seen it until I rented it from NetFlix (more on how fabulous Netflix is later), and I am still feeling the effects of this film. I have a lot to say about it, and that will be my next entry.