By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Everybody's ragging on the already retro '90s quality of the "Al Gore network," Current TV. That great panjandrum James Wolcott has spent many blog inches mocking long and loud the nose-ring-and-boogie-board aesthetic of Current's "podcasters"--do-it-yourself veejays who seem as amateurish as a Planned Parenthood skit staged for your local high school. A friend of mine described the network as "reality TV meets Reality Bites." And sure, there's something about a four-minute segment on, oh, I dunno, homegrown Big Brother-style inner-city mentoring groups, that feels a bit like Gore reaching out with big awkward hands to the grunge kids. But before you call me an anti-hipster reverse-psychologist, I must ask...is Current's '90s flashback really such a bad thing?
Technically, I suppose, you really ought not to give something points for good intentions--especially if that something is a novel or a movie or a piece of music. But Current is a just-hatched, still evolving creature that has not quite found its voice, and its intentions are unassailable. Gore claims in a press release that he wants Current to be "the television home page for the internet generation." While the disappointed masses, huddled in chilly clumps after Bush's reelection, may have wanted Gore to conjure the anti-Fox News out of thin air, the democratically elected 43rd president went in a different direction: toward a radical interactivity. Current airs short film clips the network has unfortunately nicknamed "pods"--homemade quickies shot on store-bought digicams and cut on your little brother's laptop. The programmers have tried to steer a Gore-esque middle course: not as vapid and pop-culture-obsessed as a TV version of Teen Vogue, but not as nutritious as the book segments on C-SPAN 2, either. The notion of airing audience-created films on a variety of subjects from stupid pet tricks to genocide is a good one. Here are a few notes to the Current programmers on how to shore up their output:
Lose the obnoxious podcasters. In an attempt to touch the Kids, Current has hired a crop of inadequate veejays that have none of the sexy insouciance of Nina Blackwood or the doom-laden deadpan of Kurt Loder. Early MTV wasn't exactly loaded with "talent," but it did have sizable, grab-at-a-glance personalities. Johnny Bell is a pallid, unformed Ralph Malph type, Gotham Chopra is a poor Xerox of his soul-healer old man, and flat-voiced Jason Silva is like the jock dreamboat in a Fox Family movie of the week. They're dead-eyed and their delivery is colorless. The hype that falls from their lips has the uncomfortable, unfelt quality of the boilerplate speeches at a high school pep rally. Instead, Current needs types. Room-filling personas. Funny faces and representatives of unusual regions. Nix the bedhead and the CBGB T-shirts and find a JJ Jackson or, for God's sake, a Kennedy.
Lose the status bar. Having a creeping yellow or orange stripe at the bottom of the screen to count down how much time is left on a segment sends an unignorable message: I can't wait until this goddam thing is over.
More politics, please. Like any centrist Democrat, the Current crew is terrified that the youth of America are going to run away from Too Much Spinach. Paradoxically, the political segments I've seen on Current have been among the most gripping. In one, a pro-capitalist filmmaker attends a WTO-like gathering in Miami where the local cops have gathered en masse, anticipating protests. While shooting images of the battalions of cops the filmmaker is shot in the face with a beanbag-like pellet that nearly puts out his eye, and is told his wound was about an inch away from causing brain damage or death. The outrage and betrayal voiced by this city booster is more emotionally vivid than all the "pods" about Gen Y kids in their starter marriages arguing over their first appliance buys.
More human interest, please. The strongest of all the Current segments I have seen came from Christof Putzel, who journeyed to Nairobi to document that city's slum-dwelling victims of AIDS. Before you say the subject sounds dreary, watch the tape. (Surely there are enterprising Google users who can find a way to dig it up online.) When Putzel asks impoverished prostitutes why they aren't afraid of catching the virus, their responses leave him without a comeback. "If I'm scared, that's the moment when I'll get it." "If I'm scared, who's going to feed my kids?"
Putzel's movie carves right into the terrain of the world's most vulnerable people at a moment of extreme crisis--the segment is the very definition of drama. The work is so stunning that the podcaster who introduced Putzel, the uncharacteristically vivid and sharp-edged Shauntay Hinton, seemed humbled by the act of presenting it.
Kill anything involving X-treme sports, iPods, Simpson sisters, Hilton sisters, or the words "bling," "wired," or "hottie." Even if you're chasing a knucklehead psychographic, please--stay ahead of the curve.
Gore & Co. had a stirring idea: that kids who've grown up as passive consumers of an ever-crappier popular culture might be thunderstruck by example to create their own art and journalism...and that this decision might lead to a sea change in our all-but-surrendered civic life. How many times do Americans have to tell Gore to summon the courage to stick to his convictions?