HBO Is Streaming 500 Hours of Shows for Free: The Sopranos, The Wire, and More

We live, one often hears, in a golden age of television. But when did this age begin? Scholars of prestige TV drama — a field that, for both professionals and amateurs, has expanded in recent years — tend to point to The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999. In its eight-year run, David Chase's series about a depressed New Jersey mafia boss, a protagonist analyzed in the Behind the Curtain video essay above, set new standards in its medium for craft and complexity. To understand how much of a departure The Sopranos marked from everything else on television, simply compare it to what was airing on major broadcast networks in the 1990s, most of which now looks unwatchably simplistic and repetitive.

Of course, The Sopranos didn't air on a major broadcast network: it aired on HBO. Originally launched as "Home Box Office" in 1972, the oldest premium cable channel of them all has long since expanded its mandate from airing second-run movies to creating original programming of its own.

Its mid-1990s slogan "It's Not TV. It's HBO" reflects an intent to go beyond what was possible on conventional television networks, an enterprise whose promise The Sopranos signaled to the world. Critics lavished even more praise on The Wire, David Simon's dramatic examination and indictment of American institutions that ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. In the video essay just above, Thomas Flight explains what makes The Wire, whose fans include everyone from Barack Obama to Slavoj Žižek, "one of the most brilliant TV shows ever."

If you haven't seen these or the other acclaimed HBO shows that have done so much to gild this televisual age, now's your chance to catch up. That's true not just for the obvious reason — the threat of the coronavirus pandemic keeping so many shut in at home — but also because HBO will make 500 hours of its programming free to stream on its HBO Now and HBO Go platforms. If you're in the United States or another area served by HBO online, you can watch not just The Sopranos and The Wire in their entirety, but the vampire-themed True Blood, the undertaking-themed Six Feet Under, and such comedic takes on American business and politics as Silicon Valley and Veep, a video essay from The Take on whose "satire in the age of Trump" appears above. Of all the ways we can define HBO-style prestige television, isn't "TV shows good enough to inspire video essays" the most apt? Get started here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Stream All 18 Hours of Ken Burns’ Baseball for Free on What Would Have Been Opening Day

Baseball season won't start today, on what would have been Open Day. So here's your next best bet. As Sam Barsanti writes at AV Club, "PBS and the world’s preeminent director of extremely watchable and extremely long documentaries have a special treat: The entirety of Ken Burns’ Baseball—over 18 hours—is now available to stream for free on the PBS website and all of its related apps."

It's no coincidence that Burns' documentary becomes free during COVID-19. On Twitter, Burns adds: "With events canceled & so much closed, I asked @PBS to stream BASEBALL for free so we can participate in the national pastime together. Watch at the link below or on any streaming device. And please look out for those with greater needs. Play ball."

When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Personality…. I Think There Was Nothing There.”

Dick Cavett excelled at turning the late-night talk show format into a showcase for genuinely revealing conversations (and the occasional wrestling match). Of the many riveting guests he had on throughout the 60s and 70s, some appearing multiple times, few could match Orson Welles for sheer storytelling prowess. As if in a contest to outdo himself, Welles appeared on Cavett’s show three times in 1970, and once more in 1973, as an amiable, gruff raconteur who lived a life almost impossible to believe actually happened.

Welles met everyone. He even met Hitler, he says in the clip above from a July 1970 appearance on the show, his second that year. In those early days, he says, “the Nazis were just a very comical kind of minority party of nuts that nobody took seriously at all” except Welles’ Austrian hiking instructor, who brought the legendary actor and director to a Nazi dinner with the future mass-murdering dictator. Welles was seated next to Hitler, who “made so little an impression on me that I can’t remember a second of it. He had no personality. He was invisible…. I think there was nothing there.”

By 1938, everyone knew who he was: Hitler was named “man of the year” by Time magazine, who wrote, “lesser men of the year seemed small indeed beside the Führer”—and Welles was named “Radio’s Man of the Year.” His “famous The War of the Worlds broadcast, scared fewer people than Hitler," the editors wrote, "but more than had ever been frightened by radio before, demonstrating that radio can be a tremendous force in whipping up mass emotion.” Welles’ never met Stalin, he tells Cavett, unprompted, but knew Roosevelt “very well.”

In a later appearance on the show, in September 1970, Welles claimed Roosevelt told him no one believed the Pearl Harbor announcement because of the War of the Worlds hoax. Here, in this twelve-minute clip from July, he has many more stories to tell and excellent questions from Cavett to answer (if he went back to school, he says, and “really wanted to get good at a subject,” he would study anthropology). Towards the end, at 9:00, he talks about another world leader who did make a distinct impression on him: Winston Churchill. “He was quite another thing,” says Welles. “He had great humor and great irony.”

Welles tells a story of Churchill coming to see him play Othello in London. “I heard a murmuring in the front row. I thought he was talking to himself.” Churchill later came to visit Welles in his dressing room and began to recite all of Othello’s lines from memory, “including the cuts which I had made.” Years later, after the war, when Churchill was out of office, Welles ran into him once more in Venice, and their prior association came very much in handy in the financing of his next picture. (He doesn’t name the film, but it might have been The Stranger.)

No one experienced the 20th century quite like Orson Welles, and no one left such a creative legacy. Always entertaining, his Cavett appearances are more than opportunities for name dropping—they’re televised memoirs, in extemporaneous vignettes, from one of history’s most engaging storytellers.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Janis Joplin’s Last TV Performance & Interview: The Dick Cavett Show (1970)

The best celebrity interviewers have the ability to show us how the stars are not like us at all—not only because of the entourages, wardrobes, and bank accounts, but because of the talent for which we revere them —and also how they’re kind of just like us after all: sharing the same insecurities, fears, doubts, forgetfulness, confusion, etc. They are, that is to say, real human beings.

Like no other interviewer on network television before or since, Dick Cavett could draw all of this out of his guests: both their creativity and vulnerability. What seemed like silly chit chat was a disarming camouflage for incisive questions he let casually slip through the banter.

“Cavett’s prime-time show famously featured a who’s who of rock stars that both performed and sat for loose, freeform conversations,” writes Jambase, “which brought the ethos of the hippie generation to the homes of millions.” Amongst his many rock star guests, he developed a special bond with Janis Joplin who sat down with him on August 3, 1970 for her appearance on his show and what would turn out to be her final televised performance and interview.

Joplin belts out “My Baby” and “Half Moon,” which you can see in her full appearance above, with an introduction by Cavett. Then after both songs, she walks over the couch to hang out with the host, who greets with her warmly with, “Very nice to see you, my little songbird.” Cavett poked fun at his guests, but he didn't talk down or kiss up. Most everyone who sat down with him found his dry wit and candor refreshing.

Joplin, who admits she doesn’t like doing interviews, “seems totally at ease during this conversation,” Ultimate Classic Rock points out, “a wide-ranging but informal chat that touches on everything from her feelings regarding concert riots to whether or not she ever waterskis.” She is poised throughout and throws Cavett off-guard with her deadpan humor.

They play off each other in a charming exchange that doesn’t go nearly as deep as her final interview with the Village Voice’s Howard Smith four days before her death that October, but which captures Joplin’s thoughtful, easygoing personality beautifully. Cavett later credited Joplin for sending so many other major rock stars his way after her first appearance on his show in 1968.

“She had done other television she didn’t like very much,” he remembered in 2016 on PBS’s American Masters. "She told people, ‘it’s okay to do his show, he’s not a dreary figure.’” Neither, despite her tragic story, was Janis Joplin. “At once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; she was, as millions of Cavett’s viewers were delighted to discover, a “complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Salvador Dalí Strolls onto The Dick Cavett Show with an Anteater, Then Talks About Dreams & Surrealism, the Golden Ratio & More (1970)

There was a time when you could flip on the TV in the evening, tune in to a major network's late-night talk show, and see Salvador Dalí walking an anteater. That time was the early 1970s, the network was ABC, and the talk show's host was Dick Cavett, who dared to converse on camera, and at length, with everyone from Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to David Bowie and Janis Joplin, and John Lennon with Yoko Ono. Whether they went smoothly or bumpily, Cavett's conversations played out like no others on television, then or now. Dalí's March 1970 appearance above makes for a case in point: not only does he come on with his anteater, he wastes little time tossing it into the lap of another of the evening's guests, silent-film star Lillian Gish.

Dalí praises anteaters to Cavett as the sole "angelic" animal, a quality that has something to go with their tongues. He goes on to explain his admiration for the mathematical properties of rhinoceroses, whose proportions agree with the "golden ratio" he tended to incorporate into his art.

Other subjects to arise during Dalí's twenty minutes on set include the razor blade and the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou; the vivid, irrational, and "liliputitian" images that come to life in the mind "ten minutes or fifteen minutes before you fall [asleep]"; and the artist's maintenance of his famous mustache (which he'd previously discussed, sixteen years before, on The Name's the Same). At one point Gish asks Dalí if his work has "a message to give to the people that we, perhaps, don't understand." His unhesitating reply: "No message." Cavett, of course, has a smooth follow-up: "Could you invent one?"

In his show's 1970s prime, Cavett demonstrated an unmatched ability to make entertainment out of difficult guests — not by making fun of them, exactly, but by cracking jokes that revealed a certain self-awareness about the form of the talk show itself. "Am I alone in finding you somewhat to difficult to follow in terms of what your theories are?" he asks Dalí amid all the talk of anteaters and eyeballs, dreams and mathematics. And the difficulty wasn't just conceptual: "Is it my imagination," Cavett asks later on, "or are you speaking a mixture of languages?" But Dalí's deliberately idiosyncratic English, ideas, and personality all came of a piece, and at the end of the night Cavett admits his own admiration for the artist's work, even going so far as to request an autograph on air. The viewers of America must have come away from Dalí's TV appearances with more questions than answers. But for us watching today, one is particularly salient: what on Earth must Satchel Paige have thought of all this?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Moral Philosophy on TV? Pretty Much Pop #32 Judges The Good Place

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt discuss Michael Schur's NBC TV show. Is it good? (Yes, or we wouldn't be covering it?) Is it actually a sit-com? Does it effectively teach philosophy? What did having actual philosophers on the staff (after season one) contribute, and was that enough? We talk TV finales, the dramatic impact of the show's convoluted structure, the puzzle of heaven being death, and more.

Here are a few articles to get you warmed up:

If you like the show, you should also check out The Official Good Place Podcast, especially the interviews with Schur himself. There are also supplementary educational videos with professor Todd May like this one on existentialism.

A few clips: What's the deal with the "Jeremy Bearimy" time measurement? The Trolley Problem, meeting Hypatia, finale clip with Arvo Part's "Spiegel Im Spiegel."

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Daphne Oram Created the BBC’s First-Ever Piece of Electronic Music (1957)

To the question of who created electronic music, there can be no one answer. The form's emergence took decades, beginning with the earliest electronic instruments in the late 19th century, developing toward the first music produced solely from electronic sources in the early 1950s, and arriving at such artistic destinations as Wendy Carlos' 1968 album Switched-On Bach. Driving this evolutionary process were artists of a variety of nationalities and musical sensibilities, a group including several especially unignorable figures. Take, for instance, Daphne Oram, the composer and co-founder of BBC's storied Radiophonic Workshop who created the very first piece of electronic music ever commissioned by the network.

Oram composed that music in 1957, the year before the establishment of the Radiophonic Workshop. She did it to score a BBC production of Jean Giraudoux's play Amphitryon 38, using an electronic sine wave oscillator, a tape recorder, and a few filters — a synthesizer, in other words, of her own creation.

Experience had positioned her well to design and compose with such a device and the processes it demanded: she grew up studying the piano, organ, and composition, and as a teenager she'd taken a job as a studio engineer at the BBC, an environment that gave her access to all the latest technologies for creating and recording sound. Despite having rejected Still Point, an acoustic-electronic piece she composed for turntables, five microphones, and a "double orchestra," the BBC aired Amphitryon 38 with her score full of "sounds unlike any ever heard before."

That's how Oram's music is described in the 1950s television clip above, a visit to the "country studio in Kent" where, "unlike the traditional composer, she uses no musical instruments and no musicians." And indeed, "she needs no concert hall or opera house to put on a performance: she can do it on a tape recorder." As outlandish as Oram's setup might have looked to BBC viewers at home back then, the narrator informs them that "already, electronic music is being used in films, television, and the theater," and that some people even think her collages of unnatural sounds will be "the music of the future." Vindicating that notion is the odd familiarity every electronic musician today will feel when they watch Oram at work among the devices of her studio, surrounded as they themselves happily are by those devices' technological descendants.

via reaktorplayer

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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