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Black Lamb


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Grab the antenna and stand over there

March 1st, 2006

thecontinental.jpgBY ED GOLDBERG

The Boob Tube. The Idiot Box. The Vast Wasteland. The Plug-in Drug.

All of these terms and more have been leveled at television and with justification. I’ll be surprised if one or more do not appear elsewhere in these pages. To say that ninety percent of everything on the tube is crap is to say nothing; ninety percent of everything is crap, except for poetry, where the number is more like ninety-six percent.

There was never a golden age of television. There were only programs that appealed to your childish mind and which for you are a guilty pleasure. Did you love Gilligan’s Island? Was The Brady Bunch a treasured part of your youth? They were both moronic trash.

I Love Lucy? Moments of inspired slapstick framed in reams of hoary vaudeville jokes driven by stupid plots. The Honeymooners? Some of the finest comedy acting in the history of the medium always rising above trite writing.

Your Show of Shows? One of the few sublime examples, written by comedy geniuses, performed by brilliant comics, done live onstage in front of an audience for ninety minutes, and still trite in concept even by contemporary standards. The emergence of the bourgeois suburbanite, rising prosperity, the teenager as the asp in the bosom, and the glimmer of modern world culture were all grist for the TV mill. And they were done to death. We just loved looking at ourselves, or a funhouse mirror simulacrum. It hasn’t aged well, and the descendants of the worst of these are visible every evening.

In the early days of TV, there was live drama. When you work live things can go wrong, and they did. Some of the thrill of live television was working without a net. Playhouse 90, Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theater, all done live, with stories written by young playwrights, many of whom had been trained at the Federal Theater Project and other New Deal arts programs. We got gritty social drama, ethnic and immigrant stories, poetic visions. All came a cropper when the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and their attack dogs in the right-wing media, outed writers, actors and directors who had joined something or signed something or had had the wrong friends.

They lost their jobs, and TV lost its balls. We have been paying the price ever since. Not that there haven’t been efforts. In the early Sixties, a tough and uncompromising series entitled East Side, West Side appeared briefly. George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson played social workers in a declining New York neighborhood. The writing and acting were way ahead of anything else on the tube, and it lasted a few weeks before it was yanked. Too depressing, not wacky or insipid enough for Mr. & Mrs. America.

Well, you might say, what about the news and public affairs programming? Murrow, Huntley and Brinkley, Cronkite, Reasoner, gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions, and so on. Good while it lasted, wasn’t it?

One of the best films of 2005 (Good Night, and Good Luck) recalled the battle of wills between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The post-viewing pain starts as soon as those of us of a certain age realize how low the Fourth Estate has fallen. The press corps now function mostly as uncritical mouthpieces for the dissemination of propaganda, or as blatant advocates (ah, there, Fox News).

PBS occasionally rises from its relentlessly middle-brow stupor and squeezes out some investigative piece, but it spends far too much time apologizing for not being the Republican equivalent of Pravda and not screaming Christ is Lord! enough. An unwilling member of the eunuch brigade, but working toward good standing.

The science fiction writers of the Forties and Fifties showed prescience in many areas: culture, arts, science, and especially the pervasive nature of television. Just as they predicted, TV is everywhere. Shopping malls, transportation hubs, bars and restaurants, public spaces of all kinds.

We use it as babysitter. Park the kid in front of Sesame Street or The Teletubbies or SpongeBob SquarePants as soon as its little eyes are able to distinguish shapes. This will guarantee the child’s lifelong susceptibility to messages sent from the tube, and establish it as equal in importance to you as a source of learning.

Need company? Just turn on the TV and let it run all day. Comforting, don’t you think?
Back in the Sixties, Gil Scott-Heron told us that the revolution will not be televised. Boy was he wrong. It will show up on the all-news cable stations, desperate for “content” in their twenty-four-hour cycle. It will appear between the latest results from NASCAR and the cute animal story. Reporters will be there, on the ground as they say, in their khaki vests and corporate-logo baseball caps, earnestly intoning whatever version of the truth has been sanctioned by their editors.

While we are rapt with the latest Hollywood divorce, the revolution will show up in the crawl at the bottom of the screen, right after the football scores. And we will get updates on the fifteen-minute and half-hour headlines.

Don’t think I’m blameless in all this. I watch too much TV, and I’m able to rationalize my choices: don’t you see, The Simpsons has the best writing of any sitcom, Arrested Development is the only example of Dada on the air, and I have to watch the CSI shows, ’cause I write crime novels, and… blah blah blah.

In my dubious defense, I watch far less than the alleged six-hour daily average. And I have been watching the goddamn thing since 1947. We got our ten-inch RCA that year, when there were less than three hours of programming on. Every Tuesday night at eight, our apartment was full of our neighbors crammed in to watch Milton Berle. By the end of the year, it was just us, because everyone else in the building had purchased their own receivers.

The nightly news was fifteen minutes, anchored by John Cameron Swayze and sponsored by Camel cigarettes. So Swayze was smoking for most of the show. The graphics were primitive, the news gathered by old radio guys who phoned or teletyped their stories in. Reporters on the ground live were a long way off.

And some of the stuff was amazing and bizarre even then. The Continental was fifteen minutes of pure, demented surrealism at three in the afternoon, with the camera work from a woman’s (they stayed home in those distant days) point of view. The camera moves to a prop apartment door, and a black-gloved feminine hand knocks. The door is opened by a greaseball in a brocade smoking jacket, who invites her in, speaking an unctuous Euro-trash dialect.

“Come in, my darling.” He gestures toward a couch by an ersatz fireplace. “Care for some champagne?” Somehow he gets eight syllables out of “champagne.” The gloved hand reaches out, and the gigolo hands it a glass of something or other. So it goes until, “What, my dove, must you go?”

And it went on like this five days a week until the show was cancelled. Even at the age of nine, I knew this was the funniest thing in the world. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry seat in the house, any house.

Before this turns into a small book, I must mention one man. Ernie Kovacs. If ever television coughed up an artist, it was he. A radio guy who made the switch early, Kovacs had a restless and visionary take on the infant medium (so-called because it is neither rare nor well-done). His verbal humor was at once hip and corny. His visual humor is still unsurpassed, despite all the advances in video technology and all the years since he began, around 1950, first in Philadelphia and then in New York. He and his crew of seat-of-the-pants geniuses managed to create effects using nothing but what was lying around in the studio and by playing with the electronics.

Once, when they needed a lens that did not yet exist, they improvised one from a frozen orange juice can. But, it was the content, the ideas that were truly avant garde. Kovacs was the Magritte, the Dali of television. Kovacs created elaborate visual puns accompanied by the best use of music in TV history. As the technology caught up with him, he would leap forward in concepts. His shows need to be seen, and many of them are available.

I pray we will see his like again, but I don’t hold out much hope. TV is now full of brain-dead dreck like reality shows, endless sports (Australian rules dwarf-tossing on ESPN 12!), entire networks of old TV shows, music channels, shopping networks (We defy you to tell the difference from a real diamond!) and Jesus screamers. And, as always, the dreadful sitcoms and one-hour “family dramas.” The movement is toward the inane.
I don’t know whether television has led the descent into mediocrity or has merely offered what the public wants. Doesn’t matter much. The result has been a general cheapening of the creative atmosphere, and the critical faculties.

Movies have been affected, sinking to TV standards of story and character development. Only those who recall better things or continue to seek out higher-order entertainment care, and when we die no one will replace us.

And TV used to be free. There were three major networks and a sprinkling of independents in most markets, and nothing else. Now, with cable and satellite, people are willing to fork over crazy amounts of money for a wider choice of crap. The golf channel. Shopping channels. Wall-to-wall evangelists.

By law, cable companies must supply facilities for public access programming (ninety-eight percent of which is garbage) and for public service stuff like C-SPAN. The sight of your government in action might one day result in a real revolution. Televised, of course.
I do know that, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, there’s 500 channels and nothing on.

Where’s the remote? •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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