Monday, March 31, 2014

"Cirque Du Soleil"

On October the 27th 2009 – for those of you who have not been following that long – and besides me, that would probably mean all of you – I underwent robotic heart surgery for the repair of a malfunctioning mitral valve.  I appear to be better, so this paragraph relievedly concludes on an upbeat note. 

But does not explain why this blog post is entitled Cirque Du Soleil.

The explanation for which I shall supply forthwith:

A couple of weeks before my scheduled surgery, in an effort to distract me entertainingly from…”that thing”, Dr. M and I attended the 2009 edition of Cirque Du Soleil.  (You need only to be patient, Blue Writing Person.)  As it turned out, however, the performance produced the opposite of its intended effect.

For those unfamiliar with its distinctive M.O., Cirque Du Soleil – whose origin derives from a troupe of French Canadian street performers – is an exquisitely imaginative sound and light-enhanced program of acrobatic, juggling and aerial demonstrations, whose impeccable execution boggles the senses and whose dazzling presentation revivifies the heart.  (That’s not from their brochure, but it could be.  In fact, if you Cirque guys need your P.R. releases spruced up, I’m available.  And I do not need to say “revivifies.”)

The theme of every Cirque du Soleil offering is different, but, overall, the shows conjure a distinctly otherworldly terrain, in the context of which their enthralling “Feats of Wonder” are performed.  The essential-to-the-ambiance lighting offers a computer-generated “Light Show”, and the electronic music sounds like what I imagine they play on elevators on Mars.  

Anyway, there I am, the quintessential “Apprehensive Pre-op”, sitting in my seat that 2009 afternoon, waiting eagerly to be transported.  The show begins, and way above our heads, on trapezes and on dangerously narrow tightrope wires, I see intrepid circus folk engaged in death-defying activities for the breathless edification of the onlookers below.  Suddenly, and for the first time – as I had attended numerous Cirque Du Soleils in the past…

I feel overwhelmed by the anxiety that somebody up there is going to die. 

There is a possibility that, in psychological parlance, the phenomenon I was experiencing was a textbook example of anxiety “projection.”  Whatever the reason, my reaction triggered palpitations and sweats, shortness of breath and quiet moaning, the combination of which severely inhibited with my enjoyment of the show.  (And quite possibly the enjoyment of the people sitting around me as well.)

Nobody died that day.  Nor, happily, did I, during my surgery.  Which was, all around, a good thing.  But here now comes Cirque Du Soleil 2014, and we are dutifully purchasing our tickets.  That purchase, however, came clouded by the memory of the 2009 experience, the looming question being, “Will it be fun, or will it be ‘Get me outta here!’”

Would I be able to sit through it?  Was the issue at issue.

As it turns out, I never definitively found out.  Not because we didn’t go – what kind of anti-climactical story would that be? – but because, due to intervening circumstances, Cirque Du Soleil had, for its 2014 presentation, fundamentally altered its “it.”  

On July Fourth 2013, in Las Vegas, Cirque Du Soleil suffered a fatality, when an aerialist – I close my eyes as I type these words – plunged to her death near the end of the performance.  

Now my connecting the dots here could be entirely erroneous, but it appears to me that as a result of that accident, the 2014 edition of Cirque Du Soleil has been significantly scaled back in the “endangerment” department. 

Reflecting an intentional “back to basics” theme (and content), 2014’s Totem, rather than being eerily futuristic, delves “stripped-downedly” into our prehistoric past, complete with a “rock” that magically transmogrifies into “rippling water”, out of which, even more magically, swimming “sea creatures” emerge, delivering themselves Darwinially onto Terra Firma.

Among its memorable acts, Totem includes four women who flip a series of aluminum bowls onto the tops of each others’ heads, while simultaneously riding unicycles.  We watched a man enter a large, transparent funnel and juggle an escalating number of colored balls off of the funnel’s angular walls.  (Or were they colored lights and the man simply, but still mesmerizingly, pretended to juggle?)  Finally, there were these magnificent acrobats who executed an uncountable number flips high in the air before landing “feet first” on narrow orange-colored (or coloredly-lit to appear orange) bending boards or resilient strips of plastic.

All of these were amazing to behold.  But if they fell, it was, like, six feet to the ground.

I had a wonderful time at Totem.  But due to its participant-friendly “re-imagining”, I found myself insufficiently tested, a concern, however, that may well become irrelevant.  Cirque du Soleil may never indulge in such death-defying activities again. In which case I have nothing further to worry about. 

The thing is, owing to its tamer presentation, I was deprived of discovering the answer:  That time when that “anxiety thing” happened:

Was it them? 

Or was it me?

Friday, March 28, 2014

"High Concept - Bye, Concept"

Scribbled on a scrap of paper was an idea for a future blog post that said:

“Sometimes it is easier to sell a show than to make a show.”

What did I mean by that?

Well, a lot of times, looking at it later, I can no longer remember what I meant by what I scribbled down and I end up throwing those scraps of paper away. Though not without lingering regrets. 

Just ‘cause I wrote down some indecipherable reminder does not mean that that indecipherable reminder would not have made a commendable blog post.  (And judging by yesterday’s train wreck, blog post ideas of a superior caliber come along less often than one might hope.) 

“Sometimes it is easier to sell a show than to make a show” – I remember.  I even recall the idea’s genesis.  It derived from a new sitcom, whose “promo” I was watching during a break in an SVU episode in which a pair colluding lovers turned out to be brother and sister.  (TO BE SUNG:  “That’s en-ter-tainment!”)

During the current TV season, there have been, by my count, three series that were – I mean I wasn’t there but they appeared to be – comparatively easy to sell:

The Michael J. Fox Show – because it stars the once and probably still popular Michael J. Fox, and is premised on the uniquely high concept of a family in which the father has Parkinson’s disease.

Sean Saves The World – because it stars Sean Hayes the lovable co-star from the previously successful Will & Grace, and is premised on the somewhat less unique but still provocative high concept of a family (a single Dad this time) in which the father is gay.

And somewhat more difficultly, “more difficultly” because the star is the comparatively less famous J. K. Simmons (unless you’re a fan of the Farmers’ Insurance commercials – yes, I know he did other things, like Juno and the semi-regular psychologist on the original Law & Order, but even his agent will tell you he’s no Sean Hayes or Michael J. Fox…

Growing Up Fisher – premised – perhaps the highest concept of them all – on a family (this time a separated one) in which the father is blind.  The most recently arriving of the three, that was the show whose “promo” I was watching when this blog post idea came to mind:




NETWORK EXECUTIVE:  You got a deal!

Selling such shows, as my scribbled notation observes, is the easy part.  The problem is,

“What’s do you do then?”

Here’s the key to the conundrum:

The networks dread letters.  By which I mean critical letters.  (Why would they dread letters of praise?  On the other hand, who takes the time to write a letter of praise to a network?  “Keep up the uninspiring work.  I like an even keel in my entertainment.”)

Who writes letters at all anymore?  So I shall include the networks’ dread of receiving e-mails.  By which I mean critical e-mails.  (Who takes the time to write an e-mail of praise to a network?  “Although I use the Internet, I remain old-fashioned in my viewing habits.  Do not do anything new, and you’ve got me for life!”)

The issue is simple.  You have three neophyte series whose premises involve a lead character who is “different.”  And then, in order not to appear prejudiced, offensive or discriminatory, you almost immediately neutralize that “difference.” 


Because if you don’t…

You’ll get letters.  (NOTE:  I’m not saying the lead characters in these series are “different.”  The people selling the shows are.  So no letters, okay?)

The problem then becomes – TVQ ratings aside (TVQ ratings measure the popularity of the actor) – if you do not exploit the “difference” in any meaningfully comedic manner…

What’s the show?

Either the “difference” is a distinguishing issue, or it isn’t.  If the “uber-message” of your series (sorry, my computer does not include an umlaut) is that, in the overall scheme of things, that “difference”, in the long run, “doesn’t really matter”, then you are abandoning the high concept that originally sold the show.  On the other hand, if you write the series, reflecting that that “difference” does really matter, and it matters in a way more than being “amusingly inconvenient”…

You’ll get letters.

This issue did not come up in the old days – by which I mean before me, if you can imagine such a time – when the high concept “difference” was that the lead character in the series was a monster (The Munsters), or a genie (I Dream of Jeannie) or a Martian (My Favorite Martian.)  Why was that not a problem?  Because no network fears receiving offended letters from monsters, genies and Martians. 

“Your show infantilizes the Martian People in a manner that is deleterious to the self-image of our children!   And by the way, why isn’t a Martian actor playing the Martian?”

It was only when the “differences” entered the realm of actual reality that the difficulties began.  Irate Parkinson’s sufferers write letters.  You can barely read them, but… Sorry, I thought I'd throw in a little comedy "Rorschach Test."

“Black comedy” is not America’s style.  If we want “morbid and tasteless”, we watch British comedies.  Apparently, comedy has a broader spectrum when your Empire is a memory.

Between our political correctness and our nation’s mythology of overcoming everything, the show creators have pitched a series they cannot deliver, and the show they can deliver, emerges toothless and, in no significant way, different.

A show about a newly separated father who’s blind is essentially a show about a newly separated father.  With a “smattering of blind.”

And that “smattering” (or the “Parkinson’s” smattering, or the “gay” smattering) is not nearly enough to keep you around.