May 10, 2011

Hygiene Hypothesis

Breadcrumbs, by which I mean tidbits of information that help me find my way, are coming thick and fast now that I've discovered podcasts. This morning I listened to Science Talk, a half-hour show from Scientific American, on the Hygiene Hypothesis. The title is "Can It Be Bad to Be Too Clean?"

The idea is that we can be too clean, too quick to wipe out microbes, and this change from earlier, dirtier environments has been so fast that the delicate balance of pathogens and our bodily responses has been affected. On the podcast Johns Hopkins researcher Kathleen Barnes mentioned two specific types of immune responses. One is geared toward microbes, and the other toward worms or parasites. It seems that when challenges to one are absent in early childhood, the other one gets out of whack. At least, this was my understanding. You can see the summary on this Scientific American webpage.

Here's an excerpt from :

Eliminating typhoid and cholera has saved millions of lives in the aggregate since sewers and clean drinking water were introduced in North American and Western Europe for instance. But in so doing we contributed to the rise of the modern diseases involving immune dysregulation, like Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis, Graves Disease, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, Type I Diabetes, Asthma, Allergy, Coeliac Disease, and Sjogren's Syndrome.

I played in the dirt a lot as a kid in the suburbs of Indianapolis. I ate strawberries from the banks of the shallow drainage ditch behind our house, and built mud dams all the time. This was outer suburbia, one house away from working cornfields.

I happen to be completely free of allergies, although my mother had a severe life-threatening allergy to shrimp. By the way, I am diabetic Type 2. Mere anecdotal evidence, of course. Your mileage may vary.

May 6, 2011


When I was writing 30-second radio spots, as much as I wanted to make sparkling little masterpieces, the overriding priority was to crank 'em out and get 'er done. It makes sense, since as often as not I would rip the last page out of the manual typewriter (this was a few years back) and carry my stack of work to the production room where I proceeded to voice, add music, and dub to cartridge as many as a dozen or so, all in the space of an hour. An hour from starting at the typewriter, not from walking into the studio.

Nobody wants to run the same commercial year and in year out, and even if they did, we desperately craved some variety as much as our poor listeners. The alternatives? Rest the advertiser a while, then bring 'em back on. Or - write new spots and keep 'em running. Uh, guess which one always won out?

So if I had to write a fresh new angle every time, well, you can imagine how unrealistic that would be with the kind of crank-'em-out pressure we were under. The goal became to find a concept with "legs," meaning spots that could hammer home the same selling pitch but with enough slight variations to make them easy to churn out, masquerading as fresh, or as the TV networks will trumpet, "All new!" Yeah, right.

The big boys look for the same thing. That's how you get the AFLAC duck. Bookend him with any scene you like, as long as he shouts "AFLAC" at some point, you've got another winner. Easy to write, easy to sell, and not even too irritating for us viewers. The hardest part is coming up with the concept in the first place, but boy is it worth the effort when you find one with "legs."

And now, back to the continuing adventures...In our last blog post, bookworm Ted was wondering why he's lost interest in episodic TV. As we rejoin his confused mental maunderings, let's see if he's made any progress mit zis puzzlement...

Maybe Shakespeare wasn't trying for home run masterpieces when he did all those Henrys and Richards. Maybe he was just trying to earn a living. Maybe Coppola wasn't even trying to make a sequel even more highly regarded than the original (Godfathers I and II), it just happened that way when he was trying to make the best movies he could to put butts in the seats and a (nice) roof over his family's head. Maybe Sue Grafton isn't trying to write D Is for Dostoevsky after all, and the guys who dreamed up The Honeymooners for Gleason and Carney weren't thinking, "How can we put them in a situation in sync with the dramatic arc?" Maybe they were all just looking for concepts with legs.

And my point? As much as I loved MASH and House and Upstairs, Downstairs and Happy Days and Eight Is Enough and all the other silly and wonderful and heartbreaking TV shows I have loved over the years, maybe I have come to prefer the stand-alone work to the concept with legs.

I don't think the Coen brothers have written any recurring characters, nor has Woody Allen. "A" for effort, for doing everything from scratch instead of starting from a mix. Although I must confess a real fondness for Sherlock Holmes, and Sayres' Lord Peter Wimsey, and any number of other recurring characters. Of course, this betrays my preference for reading. Most days I'd rather re-read a favorite novel than try to get interested in any newer TV series.

Yes, I loved seeing Newhart walk off the elevator, and chanting "Hi, Bob" with my dorm buddies and the cast on screen. I loved hearing the Skipper call Gilligan "Little Buddy," and all the other catch phrases built in to these things over the years. I may even come to love them again.

But for now, stand-alone movies and books and TV shows and podcasts are holding my attention even when outstanding work like episode 2 of Game of Thrones leaves me indifferent.

To be fair, some artists produce work along similar lines almost like a series, even when they don't mean to. Novelist Joanne Harris doesn't write a recurring character like Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, but she keeps writing about unusual single women of mystery with daughters, living in small villages. And Richard Russo seems to have a thing with diners. Both great novelists, though, and probably not intentionally setting out to repeat themselves.

Just one more thing. I really am enjoying my newfound appreciation for podcasts. The latest This American Life with Ira Glass is called "Prom." One part of the podcast is an interview with Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series of novels for teenagers, some 35 of which involve a high school prom in some way. You think that's a lot of books? Not even close. Wikipedia says there are 183 novels in the first series alone, and several spinoffs have followed.

On the podcast, the author says there are 500 Sweet Valley books out now. Ghostwriters are involved, of course. Do you think any of them rise to the level of Harris's Chocolat or Russo's Empire Falls? Seems doubtful.

The punchline - HBO made a tremendous four-part mini-series from Empire Falls. You could make the case that the novel was too long and complex to fit in just two or three hours. Or you could say that HBO figured they'd found something with legs.

You know that feeling of dread that comes when you hear a great movie has been turned into a series? Sometimes it works out well, like American Graffiti and Happy Days. But even in the best-case scenario, would anyone really argue that catchphrases from the Fonz ("Heyyyy...") measure up to the movie's more considerable weight?

What do you think?

The continuing adventures...

Are we hardwired to like serial narratives? With Rocky 5 and its ilk clogging our cultural bandwidth, why wasn't there a Hamlet 2? But a fellow blogger remembers Richard II and III and Henry IV, V, and VI, so it would seem even ol' Bill was hip to the jive. O erudite reader, point out even earlier serials if ye can.

These thoughts came to mind as I wonder why I have lost my interest in episodic television. I'm hardly a TV snob. I ingested weekly doses of countless half-sitcoms and hour-long dramatic series over the years, from Gilligan's Island to West Wing and House. But a few years ago my serial-attention span dwindled and seems to have gone away for good. Hmm...

Let's see, in the 70s Mash and All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, check. In the 80s, uh, I'll get back to you but I know I watched a lot of stuff even if I can't bring it as readily to mind. By the 90s I'm still there but getting fragmented. Law and Order, CSI, lots of cops and action but also Picket Fences, Northern Exposure, quirky comedies making my day and my week.

The HBO original series make a better test case even if this will leave behind those who don't subscribe. Maybe the point will come through regardless. Oz was gripping and horrific and I watched it every week even when I thought it would make me sick. Sort of the "horror film" effect, I guess, no regrets. By the time of Six Feet Under I was still riveted by several seasons worth but finally drifted away near the bitter end. This was also pretty hard to take, set in a funeral home with lots of gay love and dysfunctional family stuff, but that's all okay with me. Something else was happening to my viewing radar.

Came the Sopranos and baby, I was there! I agree with those who called it the best thing on television, maybe ever, and despite (or maybe because of) the brutal violence and the psychological suspense I watched it every week. I even loved the bringdown finale.

Then came Big Love. Watched two episodes, recognized yet another series of extremely high quality, and simply tuned out. Boardwalk Empire - only managed three episodes even though I am a huge fan of its star, Steve Buscemi. I've even watched the lesser-known movie in which he directed himself. It's called Trees Lounge, if you'd like to check it out.

The final straw, the newest HBO series, Game of Thrones. Watched the sneak preview, then avidly stayed with the first episode the following Sunday, right to the shocking ending, which I won't spoil here. It appears to be everything I would hope for from another stellar HBO original production...and yet the following week I simply didn't want to see what happens next.

Is this happening to you too? Is it our age? Or the age in which we are living? Thoughts about what the heck is going on in our next installment. So...don't touch that dial!