Television: TV or Not TV
Cards on the table: I like TV. I even like trash TV. Correction: I especially like trash TV.
Which is not to suggest that I like trash per se, only that I ofttimes find it difficult to distinguish the trash from more respectable programming, so-called.
Put differently, given the choice between forthright, unapologetic trash, like "The Morton Downey, Jr., Show," and the simply trashy, like Barbara Walters, ex-fiancee of Roy Cohn, fawning over Henry Kissinger—my sympathies are with Mort.
Now, I don't just like trash TV in the abstract. I watch a great deal of it and, even when I do not always admire such programming, I nevertheless find it vastly more enjoyable and often a great deal less meretricious than more highly regarded fare.
Not long back, one of those insufferably authentic characters on "thirty something"—the then-unemployed Elliot (Timothy Busfield)—announced that he was looking forward to the upcoming installment of "Geraldo."
"They're doing nude transvestites," Elliot crowed.
A knowingly hip one-liner like that serves a number of functions useful to with-it television shows geared to the yuppies whose angst they dramatize. First, such a joke flatters the viewer and, by so doing, presumably alleviates some small part of that angst.
Ersatz wit of this sort plays on the yuppie's sense of superiority—a superiority the source of which is at bottom aesthetic in nature. The joke, which every yuppie gets, is that "Geraldo" is tacky, as the yuppie is not. Tackiness being the ultimate vice in the yuppie's skewed moral scheme, snobbery becomes something of a virtue.
Second, by mocking other programs, jokes of this nature serve to reassure the viewer—who is not altogether comfortable that he's watching the boob tube in the first place—that it is really OK to be doing so, since he's watching TV that is so hip that it mocks TV itself.
No one does this number better, of course, than David Letterman. By ridiculing his own efforts, teasing the "Today Show," and taking shots at the GE executives who sign his paychecks, "Dave" pretends to engage in activities that are not just naughty but downright subversive. Herbert Marcuse, call your office.
The august New York Review of Books, in the meantime, felt moved recently to register its disapproval of television, an act of moral courage on a par, it would seem, with expressing solidarity with Salman Rushdie.
The late Jonathon Lieberson, who wrote the New York Review essay, even took exquisite pains to establish that he didn't ordinarily watch TV at all and only saw the programs he proceeded to pan because, having fallen seriously ill, he was confined to a hospital bed and, what with intravenous tubes in both arms, found it impossible to read.
"I tried to divert myself with an enormous book on the several generations of a distinguished southern slaveholding family that had passed through various trials during the Civil War," Lieberson wrote, "but the weight of the book proved so unmanageable that it constantly fell from my hands."
So deprived, Lieberson was forced to watch a lot of TV, insights into which he was kind enough to share with the other New York Review readers who don't watch TV. He wrote that the morning talk shows, for example, "possess a kind of incorruptible vulgarity," to which he became "immoderately drawn." Not unlike one of those pathetic souls who share their secrets with Sally or Phil, Lieberson himself—a TV addict, if you will—began to view his own somewhat shameful viewing habits as an "obsession."
Such sniffishness is perhaps to be expected from some quarters and is neither surprising nor especially remarkable. What is alarming, however, is that this kind of snobbery, once the exclusive preserve of those with graduate degrees, has now trickled down to the presumably less intellectually endowed.
Consider "Hard Time on Planet Earth," a recently canceled CBS series about an extraterrestrial warrior exiled to this planet for rehabilitation. The show can hardly be accused of pandering to yupsters.
If Martin Kove, who starred as Jesse, has ever played a lawyer, accountant, or advertising executive, this fact has escaped my attention. A cop on "Cagny & Lacey," Kove slips into blue-collar roles so comfortably that he is even seen on commercials from time to time, hawking malt liquor.
The audience for "Hard Time," it would appear, was high schoolers, and not especially bright ones at that. The themes were decidedly adolescent in nature, the kids themselves all looked like they stepped out of Levi's 501 Jeans ads, and there was high-tech gimmickry as well as aliens. A "computer-generated cybernaut parole officer" called Control helped Jesse cope with earthly manners and mores.
In one episode, Jesse has to reunite a troubled teen (Darcy Marta) with her parents. Control (Charles Fleischer, also the voice of Roger Rabbit) notes that there exists a "wealth of information on the family structure" of earthlings in their collective "data base," which is…old television sitcoms.
This provides the occasion for running clips from "Father Knows Best," "Leave It To Beaver," and "My Three Sons." Control concludes that on this planet adults who take their cues from the "Grand Master Ward Cleaver" invariably "solve their children's problems in one-half hour."
Jesse tries to apply what he sees in these programs, too, but comes to understand—as we presumably more sophisticated beings tuned into "Hard Time" knew all along—that "real life" is not so simple. Which may account for why these supposed sophisticates find the old shows, with their naive assumptions about life's manageability, so terribly amusing.
Today's programs, it would follow, present new and bolder truths that a more sophisticated generation can handle—a notion today's programs are only too happy to encourage. In place of the old cliches, however, we simply get new ones. In "Hard Time," the family is reunited, mainly by generous applications of hugs, which is contemporary television's solution to all human problems, whether you're watching Sally Jessy Raphael or Baba Wawa.
Ward Cleaver may be out, but Leo Buscaglia is in, and whether we're better off for it isn't altogether clear.
Alan Pell Crawford has written for The Nation, Vogue, and National Review. His TV column will appear monthly.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Television: TV or Not TV".