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TV in real time isn't so bad

Who needs a DVR when you have a hotel room and 'Bones'? Or 'House' or 'NCIS'? Commercials aren't so bad if you can check e-mail during them.

December 20, 2009|By Jon Caramanica

On the screen, Jennie Garth and Amanda Bynes are smearing chocolate all over each other, and one thing is clear: It's time for a reconsideration of "What I Like About You."

In four years on the WB, that sitcom had passed me by completely; even Simon Rex completists might have missed it.

But in a hotel, trapped with 40 channels and nothing on, "What I Like About You" seemed suddenly viable, or at least distracting. I was on a business trip -- three nights in a city I didn't know, and didn't have time to learn -- which meant plenty of hours to rediscover television as it once was.

It felt retrograde -- flipping channels, watching without speeding through the ads, giving shows a chance simply because they were on, instead of being a slave to the always-about-to-burst queue on my DVR. In a hotel, no one knows you're watching "Bones." Or "NCIS." Or lite-pornography that seemingly aired without incident on a secondary broadcast network half a decade ago. The only option was to give in.

For the most part, I did my viewing after prime time, though I did sit through at least half of an episode of "The Jay Leno Show," as dim as I remembered from its debut week, in spite of Bill Maher's renegade appearance. And a recent episode of "Heroes" seemed to have been shot completely without lighting rigs.

But what about "Bones," which had always seemed stiff from a distance? There were surprisingly bright banter and clever visual flourishes. And Emily Deschanel as Bones was drier and more alluring than ads for the show ever revealed. Then came "NCIS," a show that some residual wellspring of ego prevents me from following, even though its lashed-together charms remain constant. In the episode I watched, a love interest for Ducky, the dandyish old medical examiner played by David McCallum, turned out to be a killer, and watching his bow tie hold together his breaking heart was unexpectedly affecting.

Finally came "House," which I'd lapsed on viewing, a dozen episodes stacked on my DVR, mocking me. Here, I watched an episode from last year, before Kal Penn's Dr. Lawrence Kutner killed himself, and was reminded anew of the pleasures of the show's snappy, smart dialogue; when I got home, I burned through the backlog in a few nights.

That's the upside of DVR viewing -- the ability to binge -- on demand -- or to delay gratification. Some shows need to be watched quickly, and others should be savored -- delayed viewing sates both of those needs.

But the DVR isn't the death of appointment viewing so much as it's the death of happenstance.

Sometimes at home, I'll just let a channel ride out in the background, watching whatever's on, while I reply to a day's worth of e-mail or rearrange the piles in the living room. It's how I came to appreciate "Scrubs" -- at least, old "Scrubs." But apart from that, I haven't watched a TV show at its scheduled hour, in full, in at least a year, probably two, maybe three.

In the hotel, though, the lack of choice was liberating, forcing me to engage with the shows on their own timetable, which turned out to be not at all the cold comfort I remembered it as. Sure, you can't escape the commercials, but they're less oppressive in the liminal space of hotel consumption. In your house, they're an assault; in a hotel, it's a chance to walk around the room, to check voice mail and e-mail, to ponder local camera-angle customs. And then, when the show returns, it's an event worth noticing, a reprieve.

In a hotel in an unknown city, it's easy to have your curiosity piqued, and to be open to thoughts that would, on familiar turf, be untenable. If the viewing goes poorly, then what happens in the hotel stays there. But if it goes well, then strike a victory for the traditional broadcast model -- one of the rare ones.

Just before falling asleep on the last night of my trip, I happened upon an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- an episode I'd already seen, at that. Over the years, I've watched or half-watched dozens of episodes of this show, but in the last few years, the number has been exactly zero.

It's TV made for accidental viewing, shown on off-channels at off-hours. But since I rarely haunt that territory anymore, I'd all but forgotten Picard's haughty laugh, Riker's stiff pleas for attention, or LaForge's wry sense of humor. Guinan was still hollow, and Counselor Troi self-satisfied, but this episode -- the first appearance of Lt. Barclay, a frequent source of comedy in later episodes -- was hilarious and thoughtful. Not once did I unconsciously reach for the fast-forward button on the remote.

calendar@latimes.com

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