The Lateral View: Getting Cable


Nobody I know watches television—except, of course, for PBS: love them docu-specials about Urdu burial rites! For that matter, nobody I know listens to me on radio, either: They're all in deep mourning for "A Prairie Home Companion" with the insufferable Garrison Keillor, or scrambling along the FM band to locate that Scriabin marathon broadcast every year on Scriabin's birthday by the local artsy college's 50-watt station. Come to think of it, while we're telling tall tales, nobody in America voted for Nixon. Ever.

The nice thing about telling everybody that you don't watch TV, like being a preacher damning everybody to hell for immorality while writing new chapters in the handbook of immorality yourself, is that you get a two-fer: You get to come on like a snob, too above it all to descend to the great Wasteland with hoi polloi, and at the same time, with the shades pulled down low and the cat fast asleep, you can watch all the junk TV you like. Who's to know?

Well, actually, since Judge Bork's video rentals were recorded and figured in his evisceration back in 1987—the good judge likes PG-rated movies, that wicked boy—maybe one day just turning on your TV will trigger a computer to record your viewing habits. Then you'll turn up at the U. of Wisconsin reception for new faculty members, and somebody will shout, "I know you—you watch 'Roseanne'!" There goes tenure, right out the window.

All right, then, let's fess up. Everybody watches TV, but certain people, who think they're the right people, would just as soon that other people thought they didn't. Confessing a fondness—in my case, a new fondness—for TV is rather like confessing that you've become a Moonie. It leads to cognitive dissonance: "He says he thinks music died with Mozart, but he watches 'Chicken Soup'!"

I'm not alone. This isn't a self-congratulatory throw-away column. This is serious. Pay attention. Somewhere along the great downhill slide from cradle to grave, everybody has to come to terms with his era, like it or not. Television—here's news—is part of our era, like it or not. It's especially silly, if you roll this around in the brain for a while, to be somebody who's worked, on and off, in TV for nearly two decades and only now to have come to appreciate the medium. A priest who doesn't like communion? An accountant who doesn't pay his taxes? A totally broadcast-media-involved person who until recently didn't own a decent TV? Preposterous.

Why, then, now? Call it mid-life crisis, if you like hoary clichés, or just a dawning awareness that he who has no car, no personal computer, no trousers, for goodness sake, with pleats, no Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, and no involvement with TV viewing is he who's so out of it that he should be committed. There's only so much humiliation that any one person can take. Not only that: I was on the commission, appointed by then-Mayor Kevin White eons ago, that authorized cable TV for Boston, and until just yesterday I had no cable, no VCR, zilch.

Well, the cable part wasn't my fault. I live in the New England capital of yuppieism, Boston's Back Bay, a region so zealous in its fuddy-duddyism that the keepers of the eternal flame of Back Bay purity argued for years against cable TV because the cables—get this—would have to join existing telephone and electrical wires. Imagine: another wire, utterly ruining, my dear, the pristine wiriness of the wire-bearing poles already in place in our precious alleys! By the time we got cable TV in Back Bay, the rest of Boston had just about tired of it. For me it's a new thrill, like a kid's first Nintendo.

Do it at all, do it right, I always say. At least, sometimes I say that. So I went the route. I bought a 27-inch Sony Trinitron fancy-schmancy TV set for the bedroom, a 20-inch Sony Trinitron semi-fancy-schmancy TV set for the study, a $950 Sony super-duper VCR for the bedroom, and an OK Panasonic VCR for the study. I had cable put in three rooms—the third room, where my secretary works, has the old minuscule set, and I figure she deserved to watch cable TV, too, while shuffling my papers. From nothing to everything in one easy (albeit huge) check.

For which I get…what? I get everything. Almost. I didn't take NESN (New England Sports Network) because I'm not sporty. But I got every other premium cable outlet: all the old movies, all the endlessly repeated showings of The Shining and other masterworks; all the Atlanta-generated all-news yackety-yak stations; even the Playboy Channel. For a mere $89.50 a month I get cable in three rooms—a chance, in three rooms, to watch a dozen shoppers' networks, every station from here to Hawaii, and a nightly glimpse of Hugh Hefner's anniversary party, over and over again until I can recognize each bunny by tail—er, by heart.

From the Playboy Channel I've learned something very important about America's values. (Cable is educational.) I've learned that there is no part, I mean no part, of the female anatomy that isn't fit to be seen, but that nary a p*n*s must ever sully my innocence.

I don't know how they do it. These absolutely gorgeous women and these absolutely gorgeous men do the beast with two backs, and other nice acrobatic positions, in and out of flimsy garments, but somehow never does a male sex organ even fleetingly pop into view. I'm making a little personal reel of selected bits of Playboy Channel offerings, and at latest count (I'm using a six-hour tape) I've captured for eternity, or my old age at least, nearly 800 totally naked ladies, nearly as many gentlemen, and not one p*n*s. (An extraterrestrial visitor, reporting home: "Oog, you're not going to believe this! Humans spend all their time bouncing up and down, but the bigger type, the ones without pendulosities below the neck, don't have anything to put in the smaller type, the ones that wear the torture devices with long spikes at the tips of their lower appendanges. Oog, how do they make little humans?") Someone tell me: How come everything goes on the Playboy Channel except p*n*ses?

Another delight of cable TV is access to all the preachers. They divide along three general lines. The Jewish ones relate meaningfully and never say anything that couldn't as well be said by Buddhists. The Catholic ones drone on, wear pretty robes, and look right at the camera without moving. And the Protestant ones rush back and forth across the stage, moan and weep a great deal, imitate a Mississippi used-car dealer, and explain in no uncertain terms that my salvation is directly related to my willingness to give up rational thought right now…and to send money right now. Protestants, specifically fundamentalist TV-preacher types, favor ill-fitting shiny suits, hair pieces or obvious dye jobs, and what I've come to call the evangelical lope: a kind of Cro-Magnon lurch across the podium punctuated by periodic forward swoops right into the camera, the better, presumably, to demonstrate sincerity.

It's a wonder, this cable thing. "Batman" lives, with Robin. "Ozzie and Harriet" are eternally young. "Blondie" still discombobulates Dagwood. "M*A*S*H" endures the Korean war nightly and daily, and "The Honeymooners" are locked forever in time. Every series that ever was, still is. And with a VCR, everything exists when I want it to exist.

I know, now, who Doogie Howser is, what ails Murphy Brown, and why Jackie Mason is revolting. Three months ago I didn't even know who Alex P. Keaton was. America: I love it! TV, VCR, cable. Can a PC be far behind?

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host, film critic for the Tab newspapers in Massachusetts, and a TV junkie.