Late Night Cable, or, Tales of Recuperation

categories: Cocktail Hour


Robert Irvine

The convalescence after spinal fusion surgery has brought me to netherworlds I’d scarce imagined, worlds more strange by half than the mere hallucinations of my struggles with pain meds.  Summer before last the Bee Line Cable truck passed the house and then a few hours later passed again, back toward town.  This is a rural area in a rural state and cable was something I only experienced at hotels and at my brother’s house when I visited, a great luxury happily left behind to remain a treat.  But high-speed Internet, that was the next great thing of the Universe, and we didn’t have it. I saw the Bee Line guys the next day working on the state road behind traffic cones so I stopped and got out and shouted up to the guy in the bucket: “Are you going up Clover Mill Road?”

“No comment,” he shouted down.  People had been bugging him all day, said his tone.

A few months later a whole crew appeared right in front of the house, several trucks, and I collared the kindest looking of them, handed off a nice little bag of cookies for the guys.  “Someday soon,” he said full of compassion for the backwards homesteads of the world. “And you’ll know it, because there’ll be a brochure on your doorknob.”

We were on dial-up while the rest of the world enjoyed broadband and better.  My sister would send photos of her really sweet new rescue poodle and my internet access would freeze for twenty-seven hours while the shots came in one pixel at a time, our phone line busy the whole time.  Publishers sent manuscripts, whole!  Like 300K!  Bytes I mean, lots of bytes.  I’d have to turn off the computer so we could use the phone and call our (lame) provider to have the attachments removed before we could get back to email.

As for television, not a big deal.  We made do with our roof antennae and our one clear station, CBS, and three fuzzy: ABC, NBC, PBS.  When there was big news, like 9/11, we could watch.  The Yankees were on when the Red Sox played them, and that was enough.  I was content until maybe ten years ago, when Fox and ESPN started hosting all the best sports stuff, especially baseball.  No World Series on Clover Mill!  And then the Red Sox moved to a New England Sports station.  No baseball at all, none, except on radio, and even that only lasted till the Red Sox got eliminated from the playoffs: no one but I around here was interested once the Red Sox were gone.  And Monday Night Football!  To ESPN!  You could go out to a bar, but really, how much can you drink on a Monday night and still make it home?  Oh, those Bee Line trucks looked sweet to me.

Finally a brochure on my doorknob.  I remember the date clearly: December 7, 2009, a day that shall live in infamy: Send all the oodly-poodly shots you like, babies with avocado on their ears, hi-speed internet had come to Clover Mill, and cable TV, too!

I knew what to do with the Internet, but it took this neck operation and barbiturate-hazed convalescence for me to fully appreciate the television part of the package.  Late nights these last couple of weeks, once the girls were in bed, miserable me doped up and unable to read or write, I entered a certain void, one of the timeslots when formerly I’d work, midnight, one, two in the morning.

MSNBC is on channel 57 here.  It can get pretty repetitive, and then very repetitive, depending on whether Egypt is in turmoil or not, what with no election to endlessly analyze.  So, cruising on oxycodone, I’d click up a few stations to the Food Channel, click back when a commercial came, sometimes get confused and watch long series of commercials.  Or begin to think there was a revolution going on in a cupcake shop.  One click above Food Channel, there’s Tru TV, very low rent, just my speed, the requisite high-speed chases, but something new to me: shows like “Operation Repo” and “Bait Car” and “Hard Core Pawn,” and “Lizard Lick Towing.”  On “Operation Repo,” these enormous guys go collect unpaid cars and trucks and motorcycles from, like, gangs in the L.A. area, lots of juicy altercations, baseball bats and girls in hot pants, all carefully scripted into the personalities of our guys.

“Hard Core Pawn” is about a huge family pawn shop in Detroit, people pawning or failing to pawn everything you can think of, from panties to horses and back again, lots of shouting, bad decisions playing out in real time, pawn-family tension, too.

“Lizard Lick Towing” is these two guys doing repo, as well, but funny.  With warm moments like after the main guy gets beaten with chains his wife tells him she’s pregnant.  After a week I noticed they got their shop window smashed nearly every day, thugs threatening them every day.  All on camera, like the cameras aren’t there, like thugs wouldn’t object to cameras as they bashed heads?  As I backed off on the meds I noticed the disclaimer at the end of the show: “These scenes are based on real events!”  Ah-ha.

“Bait Car” is the most real show, follows the adventures of cops employing borderline entrapment techniques to gather up the slime on the streets, you know, the cops in SF parking a car with engine running and doors open to see which meth addict will take it.  They’ve got cameras in the car and it’s fascinating to watch the miscreants as they realize their doors have been remotely locked, their engines remotely turned off, and that four cop cars have surrounded them.  The excuses are pretty funny, usually along the lines of their being good Samaritans bringing the car in.  Also the number of people who mutter to themselves, “Fuck, I’m on probation.”  Or another guy crying, big comical face twisted up, just talking to himself in tears: “I’m a going to jail!”

There but for the grace of God go I.

A commercial comes and you click down to Food Network and find a show called “Chopped.” On which they give four competing chefs identical baskets of ingredients, and give them 20 minutes to make an appetizer.  Rattlesnake, gummy bears, green beans, and fish gills, I don’t know, and these amazing people sweat it out under the timer, produce beautiful dishes that a panel of three judges sample and comment on, often making puke faces.  Each round, one chef is Chopped! The three left make a main meal with a new basket of bizarre ingredients, and one is Chopped!  The writers provide each contestant with a story line, and we learn that the gal with the lip ring is supporting her ailing grandma, the lady who taught her to cook, and that the $10,000 will surely save their lives.  I like the cooler chefs, whose storyline can only be: I’m really good at this.  I’ve developed a fantasy of getting on the show on the basis of the character in my new novel being a chef.  You know?  So my story line is, I want to be as good as the chef I created?  Comic relief?  Or maybe I’d win.  Still composing the letter.

Commercial (usually for acne creams) and you switch back to TruTV, another great show called “Forensic Files,” on which they dramatize some case where DNA and tire evidence and a tomato the killer stepped on solved a horrible murder case.  Always, always, I cheer the wrongly convicted, weep over the dead, consider the beauty of evidence unpolluted by CSI scripts.


So back to Food Network.

Still commercials there, so back to MSNBC.  Rachel Maddow is on, so you know it’s past midnight.  Plus, you’ve already heard this segment back at nine o’clock, so back to Food, then TruTV, commercials everywhere, so then, what the heck, one more click north to Animal Planet, which is a network I’d never heard of, and it’s “Animal Hoarders”!  These sad people getting interventions from their families and the ASPCA and a pet-hoarding therapist who gets them to see that their pets will be happier in homes not covered with shit.

Commercial, damn it, just as I’m getting into it, 183 cats!

So back to Food Network.  The really ballsy chef who used the gummy bears to make a kind of candy sushi has just won the main-course round (brisket, armpit hair, rubber, and radishes), and here comes the dessert basket, whoa!

Commercials all around, so back down to MSNBC.  More fucking commercials for Progressive Insurance?  That dizzy, somewhat appealing gal who runs the insurance store?  Can’t they do better than that?

So back to Animal Planet and a new hour.  Show is “I Shouldn’t be Alive,” about people who lived through horrible accidents and disasters, one guy who floated on a life raft in the Atlantic for 76 days, amazing survival skills and mind games.  Frequent commercials, too, a lot of Geico lizard.  I start thinking of my convalescence as a desperate trip in a life raft.  At least I remembered the popcorn!  76 days won’t be long enough, and at the end, no smiling West Indian fisherman to pull me out of the waters.

As the days of recuperation pass and it all blends together and bedtime becomes a relative thing I learn to watch four shows at a time and not miss anything salient: I know just when they chop the chefs on Chopped, just when they open the baskets.  “All Worked Up” is on TruTV.  On which a process server of all people goes around NYC getting punched and yelled at and keeping his cool no matter what, totally fake, I finally figure out, but.

Food Network, favorite show:  “Restaurant Impossible!”  On which an Australian named John Irvine, I think, big muscular charming guy recognizable from “Worst Cooks in America” arrives at a restaurant in trouble (they solicit these at the end of the show).  He walks in, samples the awful food, bad service, horrible décor, mocks it all, gathers the staff together and tells them that they’re going to fix the place in 48 hours for under $10,000.  The poor owners have lost $130,000  in their first year, two really nice seeming gentle guys.  Irvine tells them to toughen up, take charge.  And then he proceeds to show them how.  He simplifies menus, gives chefs lessons on core dishes (I totally love when he re-invents the restaurant’s offerings at half the price, twice the quality), promotes a bus boy to line cook, tells the wait staff what they’re doing wrong to snotty faces, brings in a designer who paints all the chairs pink, brings in carpenters who rearrange existing counters, calls the local radio stations, puts out publicity.  By the next afternoon, hundreds of hip-looking people are lined up and the owners are allowed in to see and react to the beautiful new place Irvine and his team have wrought!  I find it impossibly moving, even knowing the place is doomed to backslide into disaster, can’t say why.

Though now that the oxycodone has run out, I just don’t find any of it quite as compelling, not at all.  Really, the cable guy should pass oxycodone out with the Bee Line brochure.  Because without the drugs, the hours don’t pass the same, the mystery baskets don’t make me shout in wonder.

I’m just going to have to let go of this remote and start reading again.

  1. Mike Land writes:

    What happened to your love for The Daily Show, Bill? Not “real” enough for you?

    • Bill writes:

      Still love John Stewart! Loved him last night pairing footage of the same “conservative” pundits arguing that bank CEOs had to be very highly paid if they were to be retained with footage of them explaining how teachers in Wisconsin were greedy! Terrible that the only the “fake news” shows can get to the truth these days…

      • Faye M Martin writes:

        Disappointed in some reality shows but more so with Fox news. Sent them 2 photos of what appeared to be UFO ORIGIN I took near my home on County KR NEAR Great Lakes Dragway in Union grove Wis.after my daughter sent the pictures they sent email back and then retracted it.

  2. Dori writes:

    So oxycodone is the trick to making Robert Irvine seem charming…

    I love chopped, but I’m not quit sure why.

    This was a great piece – Thank you!


  3. Valerie Lane writes:

    Really good Bill. I enjoyed it a lot. Do you get HGTV? On all night! 🙂

  4. Erin writes:

    Hey John, I teach Fahrenheit 451 to my students. They aren’t worried about the conflict between television and literature; they’re much more worried about the internet destroying literature. And yes, some actually admit at the end of the year that Bradbury wrote one of the single most compelling novels (filled with scarily prescient gadgets) that they’ve ever read.

    • John Jack writes:

      I gotcha, Erin.

      I’d heard that too, worries about the Internet destroying literature. While a nontraditional freshman in college, some literature classmates questioned why poetry should be studied anymore since they saw it as a dying, if not dead artform. I believe the Internet is revitalizing poetry. I expect some good, some not so good can come from any technology. The Internet’s capacity to connect the disconnected is one of its more meaningful strengths, at least it is to me.

    • Bill writes:

      I love how all the science I learned in college isn’t true anymore and how all the literature is still just as true as ever, Fahrenheit 451 included. My sense of things is that the value in narrative is about storytelling, and that storytelling can retain its quality and power and basic humanity no matter the medium. TV’s been around a long time now, and literature isn’t dead–in fact, some of it’s on TV. When I was a kid it was comic books that were going to destroy the world. I’m not much worried about the Internet anymore, and certainly not TV, but global climate change–that could certainly end literature, speaking of high temperatures!

      • Richard Gilbert writes:

        I want to bronze this for the brilliant first sentence and the nice followup:

        “I love how all the science I learned in college isn’t true anymore and how all the literature is still just as true as ever, Fahrenheit 451 included. My sense of things is that the value in narrative is about storytelling, and that storytelling can retain its quality and power and basic humanity no matter the medium.”

        Whatever meds and late-night trash you are consuming, Bill, it has stirred you to profundity. Or left your native insight unharmed, at least.

  5. John Jack writes:

    Farenheit 451. Is it only about censorship? Or is it about technology destroying cultural cultivation? Or is it about the tyrrany of majority rules mass culture lairding over individual freedoms? It’s about the conflict between TV and literature. It’s a love story with literature as the love interest.