Funny Once, Funny Always, and Casablanca

Saturday, November 16, 2013
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, a book about a self-aware computer who thinks he's Mycroft, the brother of Sherlock Holmes, there's a scene where two of the main characters try to explain the nature of humor to him. Mycroft, or Mike as he is most often referred to, has just pulled a stunt that could threaten lives because he thought it was funny, so Manny, our narrator, decides Mike needs a lesson.

It quickly becomes apparent that humor is a difficult thing to define. Deciding that an existential definition will work better than the dictionary, Manny prints out a list of jokes and he and Wyoming, the female lead, go through the list separately, each checking off which ones are not funny, funny once, or funny always.

This past week, with baseball season over for another year, I've been looking for movies and programs to watch on television. I rediscovered that there is not a whole lot of new material on the tube. Looking for something different, I pulled out the boxed set of Season One of 24 DVDs I'd bought years ago when I heard this was a good show, but never watched.

24 gives thriller a whole new definition. At first, I was impressed with the non-stop action, the deft way the writers upped the level of intensity in each scene as the characters were put into more and more jeopardy. After watching three episodes back-to-back, I noticed the tightness in my chest, my rapid pulse, and the need to calm down with something just a bit less intense before going to bed.

The second night, I was more aware of my physical response to the drama on the screen. I couldn't watch more than two or three episodes without feeling physically uncomfortable. And, while I could see where this high-anxiety method of scripting would draw people back on a weekly basis, I kept looking for the downtime, you know, the campfire or bar scene where people stop running and the audience gets a breather. So far, there isn't one.

I also became aware that the characters were making some choices just so the tension would increase, rather than as a realistic choice a person would make in the same situation. And I decided that 24 fell into my category of "watch once."

That's okay. Most television programs are watch once. They don't have enough depth, the surprise is gone, and there's not much to make you want to spend another hour with the story. I mean, if you already know the surprisingly valuable item found in the storage locker, why would you want to watch an episode of Storage Wars a second time?

Last Sunday night I discovered that even Downton Abbey is a "watch once." While I devoured all available seasons of this program on DVD this summer,  watching an episode I'd already seen wasn't terribly interesting to me. That surprised me.

There are, of course, some television programs I consider "watch always."

Firefly. No matter how many times I watch the fourteen episodes that were made before the show was canceled, I still laugh and cry and marvel at the incredible writing in this show.

The original Law and Order. Twenty seasons (and, if Jerry Orbach hadn't died, it would probably still be going strong). I'm not sure what it is about this series that doesn't bore me even though I've seen almost every episode multiple times. Good writing, yes, but, after you've seen an episode, you already know the twist that's coming. Sometimes I take a break and will not watch an episode, saying, Oh, this is the one where... and I'll flip the channel, but I can still watch most of these over and over.

And my latest favorite, Sherlock. A novel twist on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, great writing, incredible stories that hark back to the original canon without being a mere retelling. And Benedict Cumberbatch, with his glorious baritone and prominent cheekbones. It's no wonder he won the BAFTA award for British Artist of the Year. With only three episodes per season (because they're 90 minute movies), it's a long wait until the next season begins. But I've found that my investment in the DVDs of this series was well worth it. I've watched them at least twice (after seeing the shows in their original airing) and will watch them all again before Season Three begins in January.

Now, I had to stop a minute and think of those shows above, because I have been writing about television. But what really inspired this blog was stumbling upon TCM showing Casablanca again. I've seen Casablanca. A gazillion times. I own it on DVD because I never know when the urge to watch it again will come on me. Many people consider it the greatest movie of all time. I'm one of them. The characters, the intrigue, the love story, the plot twists, the chemistry between Bogey and Ingrid Bergman--it's all there. I still cry at the end. There is no doubt that Casablanca is my all-time watch always film.

Oh, and before I forget, and to tie this back to the opening of this blog, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my read always books. If you haven't read it, give it a try, too.

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A Clash of Kings
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