Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Life on the Small Screen

In a routine dusting accident, my wife Liina knocked our television off its stand and it hasn’t worked since. Lacking the funds to buy the de rigueur flatscreen, we replaced our TV with a ten-year-old seventeen-inch model with rabbit-ears antennae.

After two weeks of Reporter and Singing with Stars, I’ve concluded that programs on channels 2 and 3 are not suitable for viewing on a small screen. Digital surround sound and a four-hectare screen are in fact necessary: if the sound is loud enough and image big enough, it is possible to induce hypnosis and blind yourself to the programming. Our small screen just can’t hack it: it somehow calls attention to the content.

Reporter is my favorite. It’s a real art to produce a seven-minute segment on a broken sauna window. We learn that a jealous suitor shot it out (an otherwise nice guy, according to a neighbor), there was no one was inside (no kids or animals, thank God), and that the sauna owner was a woman (desired by the shooter of course). Or at least that’s what I thought the story was about. My Estonian isn’t perfect and sometimes I question whether Reporter is broadcasting the nonsense I think it is.

Crime dramas are popular on both channels 2 and 3, and many of them star one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, which means the murderer can be identified by an attentive viewer within the program’s first two minutes.

And then there are the movies. Channel 2 runs things like Bad News Bears 5 and Police Academy 17. Most of these films are banned in Western countries by the Geneva Convention, and American investigators recently discovered that the CIA was using them to break prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Most of channel 2’s other shows are of the quality of what Americans call “community access cable,” which means that airtime is reserved for anybody with a pulse who wants twenty minutes to talk about the future of competitive knife throwing or do an abbreviated production of King Lear starring members of the local insane asylum. Channel 3 is slightly better, and shows like Meie Annid actually do help it halfway redeem itself. I say “halfway,” because the host, Anni, will sometimes put a pork leg in the oven and then step out for a televised Thai massage. I’m not sure what massage has to do with cooking, so the fact that a spa gets airtime has always reeked to me of that particular Eastern European brand of journalistic sleaze—the “ordered” article or program.

Liina tells me the Estonian networks can’t help it. She says they probably have limited budgets and are bad negotiators. I imagine the Hollywood rep to the Estonian buyer: “Sure, we’ve got that Anthony Hopkins picture you want, but you’ll have to buy eleven Goldie Hawn films to get it.”

Liina’s other theory is that Estonian channels are secretly run by an old communist who can’t understand English, and so he lets Janno Buschmann choose the films. Buschmann, in addition to being Estonia’s most ubiquitous film translator, is also the man who gives us Stephen King in Estonian, and so I don’t for one moment doubt the man’s dark sense of humor.

Liina tells me that if I don’t like the channels I don’t have to watch them and says the reason I make fun of shows like Dances with Stars is because I’m jealous. “If they invited you on as a guest,” she blew her top one day, “you’d think they were great shows.”

“Yeah, right,” I replied. “My dream in life is to dance with Ester Tuiksoo and be known as Tantsu Vello.”

“You dumbass!” Liina retorted. “Ester sings! She doesn’t dance.”

“That’s just this season,” I fired back. “They all dance eventually.”

But Liina might have a point. I honestly wouldn’t mind being invited on Riigi Kodanik where I’d sit in an uncomfortable chair with my back straight and dispense brilliant advice on economic policy in my broken but charming Estonian. President Ilves might be watching, and he’d call up his friends in Brussels and get me a think tank job where I’d be paid 200,000 euros a year to drink Scotch and pontificate.

All my problems will soon be solved when the Estonian channels go digital: then I’ll get none of them. And I’m waiting for that day. I’ll miss ETV, of course, but Liina and I will both be better off without the rest. She won’t have The Bold and the Beautiful and The Storm of the Soul. I’ll miss Lost and Galakontsert James Bond. We’ll be relegated to our books. And of course YouTube. Now there’s a small screen we haven’t begun to explore.