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HDTV! Dalton eyes his brand-new toy

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Big Love: Lacey Terrell

HDTV! Dalton eyes his brand-new toy

I finally did it. I finally opened up my wallet and entered the 21st century. After years of resistance, I decided to go where many million other men and women had so boldly gone before: I bought a high-definition television set. This may not seem like a big deal to most, but I fear change, and the only thing I fear more than change is technology, so this was a pretty big step for me. But first, a little background.

For a few years now, I have watched with envy as neighbors and coworkers splurged for fancy-schmancy HDTVs. They talked about the crystal-clear picture, being able to see every individual blade of grass on a football field, and how they could never imagine watching standard television again. One thing none of them were as keen to discuss was the price:

All were spending between 2 and 3 grand. As much as I love television — and dear Lord I do love television — I could simply not imagine shelling out that kind of cheddar to admire grass. I had never spent more than $225 on a television set, so multiplying that by 10 just for a nicer picture seemed a bit extreme. But there was hope. I knew that prices would gradually come down. With new technologies, they always do. (Remember when a decent DVD player cost $500 as opposed to $50? Actually, $50 is a bit steep these days.) So I played the waiting game, watching TV like any other deprived member of the hoi polloi while checking out the occasional electronics flyer — ”Hmmm, down to $1,800? We’re getting there.”

Well, a few events transpired the other week to put things into motion. First off, a neighbor had us over to watch Willy Wonka on his top-notch HD set and up-converting DVD player. What a show-off! Wasn’t this entrapment? In any event, my wife saw it immediately in my eyes: I had serious HD envy. The second thing is that I was in the process of changing cable companies from Comcast to Verizon Fios, so it made sense to have the new system in place for the install. Third was the realization that prices had finally dropped into a range I was comfortable with. In other words, I wouldn’t have to take out a second mortgage just so I could watch Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage in glorious high definition. The final straw was the impending start of football season. Hell, if I was going to spend some serious coin, I wanted to see as much of that damn grass as possible!

It was then, however, when I made my biggest mistake. Basically, I am incapable of making any decision (major or minor) without researching it to death. I once spent a good seven hours online reading reader reviews and finding the best price possible on a DustBuster. A freakin’ DustBuster! The thing costs like $20 bucks and sucks up dirt! What’s to debate? Yet even after that debacle I still go through my own little personal Vietnam every time I make a purchase, so you can imagine how unwieldy the HD research was. I think I spent a good three and a half hours alone on the whole ”plasma vs. LCD” debate. (Burn-in? I have to worry about burn-in?!?) This time proved to be even more useless once I realized I needed to get a ”small” HD set to fit in my cabinet and plasmas didn’t even start until 42”. Small is a relative term, of course. I would be getting a 32” — tiny by big-screen HD standards, yet still bigger than my 25” standard set.

Of course, then I had to figure out what brand and model to get. Let me state this without reservations and with the utmost certainty: Online customer reviews are the worst thing that have ever happened on the face of the planet. Except the Holocaust. And maybe the plague. And Carrot Top. Here is why: For every three or four great reviews you read about a hotel, or an outdoor grill, or, yes, a DustBuster, there is bound to be one that trashes it and brings you right back to where you began — confused, hesitant, and petrified of being stuck with a lemon instead of lemonade. Online customer reviews are the devil’s work. After wasting a good part of a whole day dealing with that nonsense, I went to the much more scientific method of ”Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and selected a Panasonic. I scored a 32” for under $800.

After I got the Verizon HD box set up (which also included a DVR — my first home DVR ever, as regular readers of my Survivor TV Watch well know), it was Go Time. First reaction? Holy crap, why did I wait so damn long to do this? The wow factor was definitely there. The thing I noticed most after spending a few days with my new electronic baby was the fact that I was all of a sudden watching programs and channels that I would never in a million years consider watching otherwise. A jellyfish special on the National Geographic Channel? I’m on it! A show about mountain lions on Discovery? Sure, why not? Hell, I actually spent a good 20 minutes on Sunday night watching a bunch of hot air balloons float around Vermont. Hot air balloons! For 20 minutes! And Big Brother was on! However, my favorite new pastime has been sitting through some ridiculous exercise called Get Out on HD Net. Get Out is basically E’s Wild On! for the high-def crowd. It features an assortment of Penthouse Pets, Playboy models, and former Temptation Island contestants hanging out in exotic locations trying to feign interest in local culture and customs. I guess the point is to kid yourself (and your spouse) that you’re really watching for the in-depth reporting on tropical paradises when in reality it’s merely a glorified T&A show. Not complaining, mind you. Simply stating.

But this is not to say there have not been issues with the new TV. First off, there is the fact that even though I have approximately 300 channels, the HD channels are so ridiculously good-looking that they have somewhat rendered the other 270 ones obsolete. This was actually one of my greatest fears about going high-def — that I would never be able to look at regular TV again. In essence, I’ve become a pixilation snob. Plus, how am I getting my money’s worth if I’m watching VH1 Classic all day? Then there’s the dilemma about what to do with the aspect ratio on non-HD programming. Do I keep it in the regular 4:3 size and deal with those distracting black bars on the side, or do I stretch people out to fill the screen so that everyone looks like a pre-gastric bypass surgery Star Jones (who, incidentally, I think looked less scary than version 2.0)?

These are all issues still being worked out, but for now the future looks bright. And clear. And I’m sure my wife is positively thrilled that I bought something that just makes me want to watch more television. I guess I owe her some flowers.

OBSESSION OF THE WEEK

My obsession this week is trying to figure out what the hell happened to Entourage. I found this show to be pretty addictive and amusing its first two seasons, but now it has just become a bore and a chore to watch. This season has been particularly painful. Vince’s career arc (which used to feature engaging angles via Queens Boulevard and Aquaman) has lost any sense of sizzle ever since the whole lackluster Medellín story line, and we’ve also been forced to endure a bunch of wacky, over-the-top high jinks for Turtle and Drama that just get more ridiculous by the week. Even Billy Walsh, who was a scene stealer in season 1 as the director of Queens Boulevard, has now become tiresome due to overuse and the fact that he’s being forced to yell, ”Isn’t that right, Suit?!?” about every five seconds. File this one under: When Good Shows Go Bad.

NEXT PAGE: Five scripted shows that are better than Entourage

THE FIVE

Entourage has been lame — like most of this summer’s slate of programming — but several HBO programs do make it onto this week’s list of my Five Favorite Scripted Shows of summer 2007 (thereby eliminating Big Brother, Rock of Love, and all the other things I’m too embarrassed to admit to watching).

1. Big Love
I thought the second season started slow and I actually considered dropping this drama from my rotation, but boy, am I glad I didn’t. Everything since episode 3 has been right on, although I still can’t help but get bummed every time Joey and Wanda show up on screen. Such downers, those two.

2. Rescue Me
Not as great as seasons 1 or 3, but better than the doom and gloom of season 2. Still a keeper.

3. John From Cincinnati
Really didn’t get into the first episode, but after the second one, I was hooked?which kinda sucks, because it looks like it will be a one-and-done as far as seasons go. I’m a little behind on episodes and I hear that the finale is pretty disappointing, but so far, I’ve enjoyed my ride on this weird, wacky wave. Plus, it’s been nice seeing all those familiar Deadwood faces pop up.

4. Flight of the Conchords
No musical pun intended when I say that the show is a bit one-note, and some of the musical parodies work better than the others, but each episode was good for a few gut busters. I actually prefer their live act better.

5. My Boys
Yes, the sports metaphor narration (”Life is like a game of baseball?”) is painful as all get-out, but Jim Gaffigan alone makes this show worth watching. Funny, funny man.

NEXT PAGE: Reader Mail

READER MAIL

A few readers wrote in responding to last week’s column on the new breed of TV heroine, pointing out that the sisters have been doin’ it for themselves for even longer. But even more people wrote in to dispute my list of the best cowbell songs ever.

Dalton, I agree with you that the more tough-as-nails women we see on TV the better. I do, however, have to disagree that the whole trend was started by the (lovely and talented) Kyra Sedgwick. Helen Mirren was playing the even tougher Detective Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect long before Sedgwick burst onto the scene. Let’s give credit where credit is due. —Alexandra Israel

Big ups to Helen Mirren (although a white thirtysomething from New Jersey should probably refrain from giving ”big ups” to anybody, much less an even whiter sixtysomething from England). The point is, you’re right about Mirren on Prime Suspect. She is electric in that role. However, it being a BBC series, I can exclude it on the technicality of not being an American-made show. Take that, Miss Oscar Winner!

Dalton, dude, don’t get me wrong ’cause I think you’re the bee’s knees, but were you asleep for the latter half of the 1990s? Strong female characters were abundant when I was chillin’ in high school in Canada. Meet my two friends Buffy the Vampire Slayer, La Femme Nikita, oh and probably the greatest spy of all time, Sydney Bristow. Don’t pretend that strong female characterization is something new just because they are mainstream roles in typical procedural drama now. Buffy would destroy Kyra, Nikita could definitely take out Glenn, and well, Syndey can do anything the frak she wants! Represent, man! —Tim Lade

I love the examples you cite, Tim (although I gave up on Alias after that horrible vampire episode)…however, these were all more escapist/fantasy-type roles. Not to imply that Holly Hunter seeing an angel does not require some suspension of disbelief, but on the whole, these newer roles seem more based in modern-day dilemmas. They are characters dealing with issues that the viewer can relate to and draw upon. The ones you mention certainly kicked mucho ass and we loved them for it, but it was with more of a comic book sensibility.

You missed the funniest part of the preview for Daddy Day Camp — the credits. It’s directed by Kevin Arnold himself, Fred Savage. —John Perez

Savage is the operative word when it comes to Daddy Day Camp.

Dalton, you dropped the ball on the cowbell songs. Nothing wrong with the five you picked, but the two songs that leap to my mind when I hear the word ”cowbell” weren’t even on your list! The first is ”Mississippi Queen.” The cowbell kicks off the song along with the classic riff and then drops out only to come back for the chorus. You have to love how the whole roar of a song goes silent for the cowbell. The other song, ”Honky Tonk Woman,” is in a category all its own as it is possibly the only song ever where the cowbell sounds like it actually being worn by a cow. It’s as if the band was out partying last night, fell asleep in a field, and is woken up by a passing cow. Five seconds into the song and the mood has been set, you don’t have to listen to the lyrics to have an idea about what’s going on. Can’t top that. —Karl Gagnon

You know what, Karl? You’re right. You can’t top that. Another song that didn’t make the list at the last second but maybe should have is the Bangles’ cover of ”Hazy Shade of Winter” with a killer cowbell break in the middle. It may sound like sacrilege to say, but I much prefer their version to Simon and Garfunkel’s.

Your ”greatest cowbell songs” list is stunning in its lameosity. You’ve ignored not one but THREE of the greatest cowbell-icious songs in music history:

Loverboy ”Workin’ for the Weekend” – Some of Bruce Dickinson’s finest work

Steppenwolf ”Rock Me” – The closest to a cowbell solo we’re ever likely to get

Mountain ”Mississippi Queen” – The all-time greatest cowbell-driven jammy in music history

What’s with you people?? —Random Guy

Well, Random Guy, if that is even your real name — I’ll give you ”Mississippi Queen,” and I love me some Steppenwolf, but uh?wasn’t Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden?

Have any experiences with HDTV you’d like to share? (Are you a black-bars or stretch-the-people-out-and-make-them-look-fat type of viewer?) Agree or disagree that Entourage is past its prime? And what are your favorite summer shows? (Please, for the love of God, don’t say The Hills!) Send your questions, comments, and quibbles to theglutton@ew.com, or just fill out the handy-dandy form below. See ya next week!

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