Station Break

Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; 1:00 PM

Heard or seen something on the pop culture landscape that appalled/delighted/enlightened you? Of course you have. That's what Station Break with Paul Farhi is here for. Local stations, cable, radio shows, commercials, pop culture -- they're all fair game.

Farhi was online Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 1 p.m. ET.

Farhi is a reporter in the Post's Style section, writing about media and popular culture. He's been watching TV and listening to the radio since "The Monkees" were in first run and Adam West was a star. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles, Farhi had brief stints in the movie business (as an usher at the Picwood Theater), and in the auto industry (rental-car lot guy) before devoting himself fulltime to word processing. His car has 15 radio pre-sets and his cable system has 500 channels. He vows to use all of them for good instead of evil.

A transcript follows.


Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, and welcome back. Glad you could make it. As they say on EVERY talk show, EVER, we have a great show for you today. A few random musings for you ("random musings" being what writers do when they have no coherent theme):

--What's the deal with series that take such clearly obvious and implausible turns? Example: On the very good (not great) "Mad Men," a key character (Don) is being blackmailed by a lesser character (Pete). When Pete takes his threat to the boss (Bert), the boss--big dramatic moment--says...he doesn't really care about the secret that Pete has been holding over Don's head. He doesn't care? Even though it could destroy their ad agency business? What?

--Best ad campaign on TV: The Visa commercials, in which all manner of activity suddenly stop when someone fails to use a Visa debt card. Beautiful art direction, editing, color, activity, etc. The premise is a little bogus--cash payments don't really slow anything down--but why let that stand in the way of a really great visual experience?

--In celebration of the DVD release of their appearances on Station Break, plus the release of their new fragrance, the Station BreakDancers will be signing autographs after the show. Stick around!

Let's go to the phones...


Chevy Chase, Md.: Any reason why SNL was a repeat this last week? Wasn't there a season opener a few weeks ago?

Paul Farhi: Actually, they waited several weeks to run a repeat, unlike a few seasons ago when they re-ran the season opener about two weeks after it first ran. They do 20-25 originals a season (fewer all the time), so I guess it's not going to be live most of the time. Saturday Night Dead.


D(efinitely) C(hillin'): Far-diddy,

What up? What do you make of the quick cancellation of Viva Laughlin? Bad show, or is there no place on network tv for a quasi-musical?

Paul Farhi: Can't think of a musical drama series that has ever made it on TV ("variety" shows don't count), but CBS really pulled the plug fast on the interesting/intriguing "Laughlin." Two episodes? That's almost a record-fast cancellation. On the other hand, who thought casting Melanie Griffith in a musical show was a good idea?


Southern Maryland: Since most local radio stations have been going into the toilet for the past couple years -- changing format, annoying talk shows, country music until I could scream -- I've found a station on the Eastern Shore, WCEI-FM, 96.7 on the dial. Has a good mix of old and new stuff, reports on local events, a good morning team of Spence and Katie. My only objection is Delilah in the evening -- a 'Dear Abby' or lonely hearts format. Can't stand it but the rest of the day is pretty good.

Paul Farhi: You are the second person in three days who has complained to me about Delilah (maybe you're the same one who complained the other day). I am guessing you're not of the female persuasion, because that's the only type of person I could imagine who would not find Delilah's program smarmy. I do, and I'm not of the female orientation (logic prevails!).


Culpeper, Va.: Paul,

Here is a game (well, really just a b.s.-based timekiller) to which my dorm-mates and I devoted many hours of prime-time TV viewing. Basically, what are the best shows that effectively employed the least talent? (This was back in the day, before "reality" TV set in, so the standard fare was scripted dramas and sitcoms with professional actors, and far fewer networks/channels.) In this case we usually defined "talent" as "employability" -- so when looking at syndicated reruns, you'd have to figure how many cast members were of the "where are they now" variety, and for hit shows currently in production, you'd have to project the question to "where else can they go," figuring that after that show closes its run, certain players will be relegated to a bottom-row seat on Hollywood Squares or some supper club in Kenosha. But the key was, it couldn't just be a crappy show the the network yanked after four episodes; it had to be something really good in its genre. For instance (and giving an approximation of how long ago my college days were), my favorite examples for sitcom and drama were "Night Court" and "Hill Street Blues" respectively. Both really good at what they did, with a bunch of who-dat talent that have by and large not done anything since. Once you try looking at shows this way, it changes your way of thinking about them. I won't put you on the spot here, Paul; I'll just throw this out to the rest of the S.B. family as food for thought or discussion. Thanks!

Paul Farhi: Interesting concept! But...but..."Night Court" had John LaRoquette, who did go on to have a pretty successful sitcom career. Ditto Harry Anderson, who was in one or two more series. "HSB" is a weird one--just about everyone on it disappeared. And they were all quite good. I can't think of another show in which so many good actors went on to nothing...


Houston, Tex.: Yes -- the Visa ads themselves are unquestionably entertaining, but every time, EVERY TIME -- that they get to the premise that paying cash slows things down, it drives me crazy. Have the person write a check for Pete's Sake! That DOES slow things down -- Cash is still the FASTEST of all three transactions...

Paul Farhi: Roger that. But I guess it's the journey, grasshopper, not the destination that counts.


'Viva Laughlin': This show was a cheat. Letting the characters sing over top of the original songs? That's no fun. I wanted to hear them murder the numbers honestly!

Paul Farhi: Again, two words: Melanie Griffith....Of course, there's a two-word rejoinder: Hugh Jackman, who really can sing.


Oakton, Va.: If Stephen Colbert were elected president, would he be required to stay in character for the entire eight years?

Paul Farhi: Ha! I was thinking the other day, as much as I love Colbert, the man is locked into that character FOR LIFE. He had best hope he finds new ways to go with the character because no one will ever accept him as anything but.


Harrisburg, Pa.: In 1993, I think CBS canceled "South of Sunset" after ONE episode, after hyping it non-stop during the 1993 World Series. It wasn't bad enough that the Phillies lost, but having to see Glen Frey's camera mugging and a young Aries Spears talk about the "Caucasian Broadcasting System" during every promo was insufferable!

Paul Farhi: There have been a handful of one-episode cancellations. Remember the ABC sitcom of a couple of seasons ago with Heather Graham? Of course you don't--cancelled after ONE episode.


Vienna, Va.: I was disappointed to read your recent article on radio ratings, and to see that "The Globe" isn't doing well. It's the closest thing to something different we've ever had here, and I know (or at least I think) stations like that do well elsewhere. Stations with some variety seem to exist in every other town I visit, so they must have some support! Is D.C. different, or is satellite radio changing things? Rock Radio's Hard Place In Washingtonl ( Post, Oct. 18)

Paul Farhi: I have to admit, I don't really get it, either. I like The Globe. They're usually playing something interesting when I pop in. But maybe the consultants and the suits are right--variety doesn't sell on the radio. People want predictability, which means tight playlists. Sad, but possibly true.


Confused: So according to GEICO, cavemen still walk the earth, and Jed Clampett had Internet access in 1963.

Paul Farhi: Well, you see, these are TV commercials, which, um, exaggerate things for comedic or emotional effect (I learned this from watching "Mad Men," or possibly "Bewitched")...For my money, I love the Chatty Cathy GEICO ad. The black-and-white footage is very arresting. And it's a funny concept, albeit a one-joke one.


Melanie Griffith in a musical show:: Melanie recently played Roxie in the traveling version of Chicago. Are you questioning her abilities? Do you not recognize talent?

Paul Farhi: She did? I don't mean to disparage Ms. Griffith, but isn't she a little old for that role?


Re: SNL:"They do 20-25 originals a season."

What? You mean total skits? I think they only do about 6 new complete shows per season. And that usually includes a musical guest and a host they've already had on. Plus, the skits that were funny the first time often get repeated with only a slightly new situation. Like last season I think they did the Target check-out skit a few times. One time it's funny. The next 2 times with the same jokes being repeated with a different host... yawn.

Paul Farhi: SNL has a long tradition of recycling characters. It's a good thing, if you like the bit. Some go just the right number of times (Wayne's World, Matt Foley, for examples) and a few overstay. But I'd argue the over-stayers were never funny in the first place, so they over-stay by simply appearing TWICE.


Southern Maryland -- again: Paul: No I'm not the one who complained to you recently about Delilah, and yes, I am female. (I think it's a syndicated show but don't know where it comes from -- I do wish they'd take it off the air.) I can't stand listening to peoples' love life problems. I also hate telephones and shopping so maybe I'm missing a few female genes. No big loss if you ask me!

WCEI comes from Easton, MD, on the Eastern Shore. Maybe they use Delilah to fill up time when they can't get a regular DJ.

Paul Farhi: Very likely. The dirty little secret (which is really neither "dirty," "little" or a "secret) about syndicated radio programming is that most stations pay nothing for airing syndicated shows. They are essentially given to the station by the syndicator, which hopes to gain wide enough distribution so that it can turn around and sell commercials. So, syndicated shows aren't just cheap for local stations--they cost nothing at all.


Laurel, Md.: Great -- "Viva Laughlin" gets canceled, but we are still stuck with "Cavemen!" Is there not justice!

Paul Farhi:"Caveman" has done surprising well, too. And by "surprising well" I mean, "wasn't cancelled after the first 15 minutes."


Commercials: I do love the VISA commercials, my favorite being the one in the diner where all the food is flipped and bagged in perfect sync. Looks like the commercial this season they were betting on the Saints being a powerhouse team.

The commercials I'm liking right now are the NASCAR ones with the kid talking about his cousin race car driver, and how even though they're cousins he'd still put him to the wall.

Paul Farhi: Yes, the Saints VISA ad is a little odd and a lot late, given the Saints' performance on the field. But I guess those spots are so expensive to produce that there's no turning back once they're made.


Re: Mad Men: The boss' underreaction to Don's secret life I can understand. He's stand with the long-time (profitable) employee whose work he knows vs. the smarmy, untrustworthy upper-class underling. Plus, everyone on that show is a nihilist anyway.

But the "oh you're pregnant, and by the way, the baby is ready to be delivered RIGHT NOW" twist was harder for me to ignore.

Paul Farhi: Yep. I had a hard time with that one, too. It's such a ham-handed anti-feminist critique, too: Career gal is so singleminded in her determination to make it in a man's world that she doesn't notice that she's pregnant. Oh, really? Reminds me of the t-shirt, which is a takeoff on the Roy Lichtenstein (sp.?) pop-art paintings, in which a horrified woman is facing a man and the thought bubble over her head says, "My God! I forgot to have children!"


Mrs. Antonio Banderas...:...Is the perfect age for Roxy Hart. Maybe not the right hair color naturally, but just the right age.

Re: The Globe, variety is good, but there's nothing Rock and Roll about Cher. They also tend to be really heavy on the light rock. I haven't heard any Aerosmith on there in ages, but I do hear alot of Zep still. I doubt metal or hard rock woudl really be something they want to get into, but the endless pillow rock in the new stuff could use a shake up.

Paul Farhi: I dunno. After Bebe Neuwirth and Catherine Zeta Jones, I was thinking younger on Roxy...And The Globe plays Cher? Say it ain't so! As for Aerosmith, I can do without 'em, thanguvurrymush....


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Best commercial these days is the "beer at the opera" ad.

Paul Farhi: I like that one, too. And it was funny the 42nd and 43rd times I saw it, but it's getting kinda old now.


SNL Skits: Isn't the repeat-the-sketch-in-a-different-setting SNL's way of beating the characters into your head so they can make an unwatchable movie?

Paul Farhi: Three words: Mary Catherine Gallagher.

Two more words: Stuart Smalley.

One more word: Yeah.


SNL Redo, Again: But, John Belushi's Samurai series of skits will remain classic even though it was the same concept in different situations.

Sometimes, a character just works. Oftentimes, not.

Paul Farhi: The trick is knowing when to quit, isn't it? For example, the Penelope-the-liar character started strong, and now is just repetitive and, frankly, creepy. Should have dumped it after two, maybe three iterations. Also, "Deep House Dish" has got to go. I'd like to see more of that weird Euro-trash family, though (the Noonies?). Very odd and amusing, in a "Shprockets-y" kind of way.


Washington, D.C.: Heroes: I've seen this show a few times and I think it is amazing. But I have no idea what's going on. Can you explain it to me???

Paul Farhi: Well, there's these young people, see, and they have super powers, see, which they use for good instead of evil, which makes them--wait for it--"Heroes."

Thank you.


Mad Men: Best new show since Huff? Yep.

Paul Farhi: All in all, not perfect, and at times kind of frustrating. But I'm glad to see it renewed.


Re: Mad Men Suprise Pregnancy: I know it's a stretch of a storyline, but I do actually know someone who didn't realize she was pregnant until she was about 7 months in. This woman is pretty intelligent, too, and it's hard to believe she missed the signs, but she did. I was a little disappointed that the writers took the story there (couldn't Peggy have just been gaining weight from overeating?), but otherwise, I loved the finale. Paul, you're wrong -- it is a great show!

Paul Farhi: You are right. There are cases in which women don't realize they're pregnant, even up until delivery. But often these women have deep psychological problems. Which hardly describes a smart go-getter like Peggy....As for the finale, Don's pitch on the slide-projecter account was ingenious and beautifully done. One of the best things I've seen in many months.


Somebody likes Poison: How about that X-Box commercial with the group of kids singing "nuthin but a good time"? Now that is 2007 guerilla campaign advertisement

Paul Farhi: I refuse to give ANY videogame advertising any credit at all. All the games that get advertised seem to b be misognynistic, mindlessly violent or are, in some way, rather ugly. Haven't seen one that doesn't fit that criteria.


I-Man: What station in D.C. will have the new Imus show... and is that 100 percent official yet?

Paul Farhi: Not 100 percent official that he's coming back, but I'd go with 96.3 percent official (neither Imus or his New York station have confirmed his return, officially). As for a local station, WMAL has ruled him out. I don't think Bonneville would take him on 3WT. That leaves a couple of weak/bad-signal talk stations. Which is history repeating itself--Imus never did any kind of ratings in Washington, despite his Washington-centric content....


The Globe and Cher: Yeah, late at night when it's on computer control she pops up sometimes. Personally I think they should hire Albie D on permanently as music director. He's great. No disrespect to Shelby, but Albie is just awesome.

Paul Farhi: Well, okay. That's eclectic for you. Odd as that might sound on an alt-rock station, maybe it would be nice surprise to get a late-night Cher hit every once in a blue moon (please make it "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves," though).


Hill Street Blues: Certainly a lot didn't do anything but Robert Prosky had a successfull movie career and well Dennis Franz kind of succeeded, no ??

Paul Farhi: Ah, yes. Of course. Of course...


RE: Melanie Griffith:: She may be long in the tooth, but I thought on Viva Laughlin her face looked more natural than in a long time. Her lips appear to have deflated somewhat. Also, in Chicago, the choreography was altered such that Ms. Griffith didn't have to move around so much.

Paul Farhi: Nice to hear. She's an attractive woman and a surprisingly good actress (in certain roles, with certain directors).


Where are they now?: Paul,

I'll bet you could do a whole chat on all of the TV and radio personalities that have come and gone thru the years.

Good, bad, favorites and non-favorites. Sound interesting?

Paul Farhi: That will be part of the special "extras" chat when we release "Station Break: The Early Years, Volume I-VI" on DVD in time for the Christmas shopping season. Check your local retailers.


More Cher...: Sorry, it's always "Life After Love".

Aww come on, no Aerosmith? Spoilsport.

Paul Farhi: I'm old school. And Zeppelin, yes. Aerosmith, no. Some groups age well (Zeppelin, AC/DC), and some just don't age at all (Aerosmith).


Greatest SNL redo?: The Blues Brothers!

Paul Farhi: You mean the movie version thereof? Because I can't recall even one "BB" skit on SNL. They performed songs on the show, but I don't remember any acting on it.


Chicago again: Isn't Roxie the younger one (Renee Zellweger in the movie)? And the older one is ??? (Velma? Sheesh, I've only seen it twice onstage and a half-dozen times in movie form, can't believe I've forgotten...)

Anyway, Griffith is way, way too old for Roxie, and only slightly more credible as the older one.

Paul Farhi: Oh, jeez. You might be right. I'm confusing my Velmas with my Roxys (Roxies?)...And I'll give you too old in a Broadway role: Glenn Close playing Nellie Forbush in a recent TV version of "South Pacific."


You are right. There are cases in which women don't realize they're pregnant, even up until delivery. But often these women have deep psychological problems. : That's now. The show is 50 years ago when info was scarce and certainly NOT for single women. Single women technically couldn't get birth contol, so they certainly didn't have sex ed or access to health info. A LOT still didn't know anything on their wedding night. This was still the "lie still and think of the queen" era.

Paul Farhi: Apples and oranges! Yes, birth control was scarce, women were kept in the dark about sex, etc. etc., but I'm pretty sure women back then realized it when they were NINE MONTHS PREGNANT.


Viva Laughlin: I give up -- there's absolutely no logic as to what stays on and what doesn't. Journeyman is one of the most boring pieces of tripe I've ever had the misfortune to watch, yet it's still on. Viva Laughlin was actually interesting -- sure, Hugh Jackman was the only one who could sing, but the second episode was better than the first and I was actually interested in what was going to happen and looking forward to episode 3. Oh well, maybe we'll see the remaining episodes on DVD.

Paul Farhi: Hey, I have a soft spot for "Journeyman." He's a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. *I* was a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. He travels through time. I...okay...I don't travel through time. At least not as often as he does.


Hill Street: Besides Franz, who had the most success post-Blues, Joe Spano might be the next recognizable face on TV with a regular supporting gig on NCIS. Both Betty Thomas and Charles Haid have gone on to successful directing careers, and at least three of the main cast members have since died.

Paul Farhi: Hmmmm. Let's withdraw that whole thing about how Hill Street Blues cast members disappeared. On the other hand: Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Warren--where are you now?


Surprise pregnancy: A friend's mother (who was an RN, fer cryin' out loud!) didn't know she was pregnant with him till she was 5 months along. She had a highly irregular cycle, didn't gain a lot of weight at first, so didn't realize.

Paul Farhi: Understood. Entirely possible. But: five months. Less possible: NINE months.


Hill Street Blues actors...: About half the cast has died in the past 20 years since HSB went off the air. Betty Thomas and Charles Haid have done a lot of directing, Dan Travanti has done stage, a couple have done Grade B or made for TV movies, Robert Prosky is still going strong. Since these actors look like regular, ordinary people, they blend in and are hardly noticed when they are in another production. The quality of a good actor is to be a chameleon and blend in -- John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor couldn't do that.

Paul Farhi: Ah. Stage. That's where D.J. Travanti got to...And it's true about John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor--but that's the very definition of a star. Someone who is so familiar in their persona that they have become iconic. Tom Cruise, for example. He never plays anything but "Tom Cruise." And he probably doesn't have to.


Alexandria, Va.: Re rock radio and predictability: Have you looked at a playlist from the 60s or even the 80s? Nothing predictable there. What mattered was that there were personalities -- either DJs or program directors -- who would choose music that worked for a large audience. You wouldn't like everything that came on the radio, but everything would be interesting; and if you didn't like one song, you'd probably like the next one. Today those lists are made by corporate masters who aim for the safe road instead of the interesting one. The narrowing of formats has been a cancer for rock radio for 15 years and more. Replacing radio with the iPod is no more than the logical culmination of this trend.

Paul Farhi: I'm not so sure. If you could transport me back to my formative radio-listening days (a la "Journeyman") would the playlists of the stations I used to love really be that eclectic? I'm not so sure. I grew up in L.A. listening to KHJ (top 40), KRTH (oldies), and KMET (album-rock). Not sure they're so much different than today's stations.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Those Visa commercials are having an unintended opposite effect on me, by making me want to pay cash just in order to make a public statement that

1. I'm a person, not just another cog in their money machine.

2. If I pay cash then my purchase can't be traced to me, which serves to protect a tiny shred of my privacy from a government that seems bound and determined to learn everything it can about all of its citizens, even the law-abiding ones, by demanding that companies hand over computerized records.

For much the same reason, I refuse to use a preferred-buyer card at the supermarket, even though it might save me a few cents on some purchases: why sell out my right to privacy, least of all so cheaply?

Paul Farhi: Fair point(s). My pet peeve is smaller: These ads are now trying to convince us that waving your debit card in front of the card reader is a great new convenience. I guess swiping your card through the little reader is just way too much effort. Tires you out or something...


Paul Farhi: Folks, we've gone into bonus time here, which is crowding into my important personal indulgences and other time-wasting opportunities (don't get me wrong--not that it ain't fun wasting time with all of you). So, I better wrap 'er up. Please come on down in two weeks for our special post-Halloween Spook-tacular. Same chat, new complaints, rants and unsupportable opinions. In the meantime, regards to all...Paul


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