For Christmas 2005, Santa Claus brought my sons an ESPN Gamestation, your basic back-of -the-door Nerf Hoop, but all 'roided up and tricked out for the new millenium. You can shoot hoops, throw baseballs and footballs at a target and even play variations on golf, soccer and hockey. And it has an electronic scoreboard that plays sound effects, catch phrases from Shtu Scott, and the SportsCenter theme. I think the latest model has a wifi and blu-ray bundle, but Santa's elves hadn't got that system past the beta stage when we got ours.
Even without all the up-to-the-nanosecond technology, this toy was a big hit with the boys. For about a month, they tried all the games, and the Doc and I would receive breathless updates on the latest high score or world record for "Beat the Clock" or "Perfect Game" that had just been set. Eventually though, as it always does, the novelty wore off, the automatic retriever was folded up, and we had a plain old hoop standing against a basement wall. It was still put to good use, with simulations of NCAA Tournament games in the spring and Gilbert Arenas gamewinners this winter (and my "no-dunking" rule was steadfastly ignored), but the scoreboard was largely inactive and Shtu, silenced, not that that is bad thing, necessarily.
Then one day last week, with no explananation, my younger son asked me to help him unfold the ball retriever, a surprisingly simple endeavor that involves a few springs and some Velcro. We checked the scoreboard connections, gathered the various balls from wherever they had been scattered about the room, and the shooting and throwing contests began anew.
My first thought, naturally, was one of satisfaction in knowing that the elves hadn't put in all that hard work for a flash in the pan toy that would never again be of interest. But my second thought was of "American Idol." Isn't this show really just the favorite toy of the overgrown children who are in charge of the FOX Network? They take it out for a few months and play with it for a while, it gives them great pleasure in the form of megaratings, and then they set it aside, suddenly fascinated by "House" or "Bones" or another melodramatic one-word title show that holds their interest for a while.
But, as the calendar year winds down, they're sitting around, "The O.C." has gone down the tubes, it's too cold to play outside, and God forbid they should read a book, and there on the shelf, right where they left it last spring, sits American Idol. So they pick it up and start to play. There's comfort in the familiarity: the catchy theme music, the gently hypnotic rotating logo. And the characters, from the sweetly addled Paula and cruel Simon to smarmy Ryan. Some of the contestants are pretty good and most of them are hilariously awful. And as they continue to play, the first night's ratings come in, nearly 38 million viewers, the best debut ever, and nearly 10 milllion more viewers than any other show on TV the week before.
And, just like that, they have their favorite toy back for another few months.