Many things keep getting worse—carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Congress and, oh, hey, that new coronavirus with the 30 percent mortality rate percolating in the Middle East.
These are substantial things, worthy of our concern, and the morbid among us do think about them. (Except maybe for Congress, which is too depressing to contemplate. News about its doings has become like a dead animal in the road—something you keep an eye out for so that you can be sure not to really look.)
Fortunately, we are able to distract ourselves from brooding about these disturbing topics by some of the things that just keep getting better, such as radio and TV. Cable TV may have brought us crap without end and the curse of the 24-hour news cycle, but it's also delivered The Wire, Deadwood, Justified, Breaking Bad and Nurse Jackie. NPR may insist on telling us what's going in Syria (click) and Washington (clicketyclickclick), but it also brings Prairie Home Companion, This American Life and Radiolab humming into our radios and iPods.
Lately, Morning Edition has been having chefs on to talk about what you can do with the weird ingredients in the back of your cupboard. Food advice from Nigella Lawson on my car radio! Why didn't they think of this before? We may be headed for Armageddon, but, damn, are we entertained.
The pleasures of excellent TV met superb radio in a particularly delicious way a couple of weeks ago when, on Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, for a ridiculously satisfying hour. Weiner is a charming talker and a smart, sweet guy, but what makes him so special is that he knows the Secrets We All Want to Know. Gross, who can be obtuse and irritatingly censorious, is, despite her stated loathing of serial adulterer Don Draper, a total, engrossed fan of the show—and her delight in discussing the Mad Men's twists and turns, her need to gossip about the characters as if they were real people and her yearning to know what will happen next exactly matched my own.
One of the best bits was when she complained indignantly about the trailers for the following week's show, which consist only of tiny clips of characters reacting—with shock, surprise or disapproval—without any context whatever. My friend and fellow fan Susan had recently mentioned precisely the same thing—that the trailers tell you nothing about what happens next.
Weiner explained with amusement that that was exactly the point. He had wanted no teaser at all, arguing that a huge part of the show's appeal is that the audience doesn't know where the story will go next, but the network had insisted that there be one. The compromise they've reached is a semi-farcical 40-second clip reel that's 100 percent tease and zero spoiler.
For a Mad Men fan, inside stuff like this is gold.
Another piece of great radio recently gave me a double dip of happiness. Absolutely by chance last November, driving to work, I heard one of the conversations that, without knowing it, I most wanted to hear in the world. It was Rolling Stones Week on Morning Edition, and I happened to hit the last segment, with Mick Jagger talking about the greatest of all Stones songs, "Gimme Shelter." (That it is the greatest is a fact acknowledged by all reasonable people.) He sounded bored (of course) but was meticulously polite as he ponied up one fascinating detail after another about the recording of the song. Did you know, for example, that that high, spooky woman's voice wailing at the beginning is Jagger's falsetto?! I didn't, and learning it made my day.
Then, a couple weeks ago, I was at Office Depot when "Gimme Shelter" came on the store's sound system. Just as it was really kicking in I got up to the checkout, where the clerk, who must have been all of 20, apologized because the register was slow. I said, "With a great Stones song on, who cares?" She lit up and said how much she loved the band and "Gimme Shelter" in particular, so I told her about the interview. She said she wished she'd heard it and I advised her to go the NPR website, that I was sure it was archived. She said she absolutely would.
A bright little zing of pure social pleasure in the middle of a drab day, brought to both of us by NPR.