Tales from the everything's-slightly-substandard economy

I love the recent TV series Friday Night Lights. Better than the movie with Billy Bob Thornton. Better than the (very good) book by H.G. Bissinger.

We left the U.S. before the series began and caught up with it only when visiting friends, Rita and Ted Schell, told us about it and bought a first-season boxed set as a gift from the local pirate video store. After they left my wife and I started watching, and... great! Rings true about America (I tell Chinese students that to understand the U.S. they should watch this rather than their current favorites: 24 and Prison Break.) Rings true about football, and small-town life, and the inexhaustible possibilities of high school as a metaphor for American life.

Then the first problem: the eight DVDs in the "first season" set go through episode 18. We get to that episode and think: this can't be the end! No resolution about the football season, or about anything else.

I look on IMDB and see: there are 22 episodes in season one. Hmm. I go back to the pirate video store, "Even Better than Movie World" (across the street from "Movie World"), and ask where the other disks are. I'm willing to pay the extra 87 cents per disk! 没有, I hear. Mei you. We ain't got any. Hmm.

I check the NBC web site. They have full episodes online! Hallelujah. We can't see them on TV but there is always the laptop screen. We click on the link for Episode 19 and sit on the couch with the laptop in front of us. "We are sorry, the clip you selected is not available from your location." Hmmm. "Your location" = China. Maybe somebody has told them about what happens to downloaded videos here.

I fire up the proxy server -- the device that keeps web sites (and China's Great Firewall) from knowing exactly what "your location" is. Now I can click on the episode links. And the feed starts! And we watch... sort of.

The NBC site (unlike, say, YouTube) doesn't let you download and cache a file, so you can see it in one burst. You watch in real-streaming time. Which for us means: 30 seconds of action. Maybe 45 seconds of freeze. Sixty seconds of drama and football! Ninety seconds of nothing. A minute of show, then 30 seconds of commercial. Through patience, investing maybe two and a half hours for each hour-long episode, we've now seen episodes 19 and 20. (Net connections from China to North America are often slow, in part because of the Great Firewall.) Two to go for the complete season. We treasure the moments when the screen freezes while a touchdown pass is in the air, or a passionate kiss has just begun.

The upside here: it's been cheap! The 8-CD boxed set cost $5 or $6. If we'd been in the U.S., we would have followed it on TiVo, which with all the associated costs (and the cable or satellite TV service) would have come to much more. if a "real" full-season set were available here, it would have been more expensive too -- probably even to rent.

The downside: when everything is on the cheap, everything is a little bit shoddy. I won't make the full political case here, but as China gets richer, its people will be better off as they can afford to do things legit-style, not in this perpetual grey zone.