TV is back, and it’s bad

Oct 22, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Normal. You know about “normal.” That’s the place back to which we are all supposedly trying to get. It could be that normal is overrated, at least when it comes to television programming. Maybe we should aim higher than normal, as long as we’re in a transitional stage anyway.
Local news has returned to normal in Washington-the normal sensationalist yelping with a large dose of alarmist hysteria thrown in. That is, no newscast and no promo for a newscast is considered complete without a mention of “anthrax.” It absolutely must come up, even if only to report that, say, there were no new anthrax cases today.
The word has become part of our everyday vocabulary so quickly, as common as “soap” or “water.” Television has made it so. It’s a pity that “anthrax” sounds so much like “Amtrak,” the train system. And the company whose commercials have some sort of idiotic duck or goose that keeps squawking “AFLAC” might think about putting that goose out to pasture. The ads stink anyway.
Of course, there had been talk that TV was going to be somehow kinder and gentler in the wake of the traumatic national tragedies in New York and Washington. Yeah, right, kinder and gentler-for about five minutes. If you tuned in to the syndicated “Maury Povich” show on Friday, neither kindness nor gentleness was remotely what you saw.
Be afraid
This was a program about phobias, the loonier the better. Women with phobias about snakes, spiders and roaches didn’t seem all that unusual, since it’s hard to find people very fond of those particular creatures. But one woman said she was phobic about aluminum foil. Really. She said, convincingly, that she had an absolute, blood-curdling terror of it.
Naturally, the producers of “Maury” knew what to do next. They had a staff member come out from backstage carrying a large box full of aluminum foil. The woman went ballistic, almost hyperventilating, crying and screaming and running pell-mell through the studio. The staffer with the foil followed her.
The poor woman’s terror was itself terrifying. But when the director wasn’t showing the woman running for her life, he was cutting to shots of audience members roaring with laughter at her tortuous suffering. It may have been one of the sickest and most twisted pieces of pure viciousness ever on daytime TV.
“I don’t want to make light of this,” Maury said. No, he wanted to make ratings out of it. A woman with a phobic aversion to dogs was trotted out-and, yes, a dog was also trotted out soon after. This woman became hysterical, too, and ran screaming and crying through the studio. A doctor who deals with phobias was present and would try to help these people, it was said, but at least three-quarters of the show was given over to exploiting and torturing them, not helping them.
Selfishness lives
Prime-time network TV is getting back to normal, too. Witness that smash hit “Will & Grace” on NBC. That is one cold show. It’s about four characters-two selfish gay guys and two selfish straight women-who for some reason are friends, even though they can never resist the chance to hurt or ridicule one another.
The jokes tend to be crude. Jack, one of the gay guys, declared to Will that he was going to carry his fanny pouch under his arm “so as not to obscure my dynamite fanny.” Later he dropped a phone down the front of his pants and dared Will to retrieve it, pointing at his crotch and telling Will, “This is a big opportunity. A very big opportunity.”
Jack’s distaff counterpart, Karen-a filthy-rich woman who works for Grace-faced the chore of visiting her husband in prison. When a guard at the front desk had trouble hearing her identify herself, she bellowed, “I’m his bitch, OK? I’m Stanley Walker’s bitch!” Naturally, there was also a joke involving the term “penal system.”
Grace was frightened about going behind prison walls. Instead of comforting her, Will (her roommate) did an impression of Hannibal Lecter so as to frighten her further. He must have been watching “Maury” earlier in the day.
Later, Will, a lawyer, was asked to comment on the case by a local TV news crew. It seems he has a deadly fear of facing a camera, so his responses were incoherent gibberish. A little later in the episode, Will returned home to find Jack, his dear friend, watching Will’s gaffes on videotape-replaying them over and over and laughing hysterically.
His “friend’s” misery was keeping him great company.
Grace volunteered to spend the night at Karen’s house after Karen broadly hinted she would like her to. But Grace discovered she loves living in luxurious surroundings, and so she wouldn’t leave. In the morning, Karen made a wisecrack to her maid and the maid shot back, “Up yours, Count Drunkula.” When the maid announced that “soft-core porn for women” would be shown in the screening room that afternoon, Grace decided to stay on still longer.
Finally, Karen and her maid got rid of Grace by pushing her down the stairs. Funny stuff.

Many of the commercials interrupting the show were for movies. A huge backlog of movie ads built up during the days of terrorist news coverage, so the airwaves have been flooded with them. Virtually all movie ads look the same, edited for maximum bang-a series of violent scenes with lots of crashing, bashing, banging, clanging and random acts of maliciousness.
Two films advertised on that night’s “Will & Grace” feature endangerment to children as a major plot point: “Domestic Disturbance,” a kinky thriller, and “Don’t Say a Word,” which apparently dramatizes a kidnapping and threats of horrific violence against a child.
NBC aired a promo for Sunday night’s episode of the “Law & Order” spinoff “Criminal Intent,” all about “a Don Juan with a passion for murder.” By this time, “Will & Grace” was ending and “Just Shoot Me” was beginning. A woman cop was a featured character, so naturally there was a joke involving the term “penal system”-just like on “Will & Grace.”
No relief
The self-absorption of the characters on “Will & Grace” is, yes, played for laughs. But you’d think that maybe once or twice in a blue moon these people would show some kind of concern for other people, at least for these “dear friends” with whom they share so many experiences.
Jack did take Will to an acting class so that Will could conquer his fear of facing a camera. Eileen Brennan, who guest-starred as a hellishly cranky acting teacher, was actually funny. The students were asked to perform an acting exercise: Get up on stage and apologize, convincingly, to someone they had wronged.
At first Will balked, refusing to perform. But the teacher forced him up onto the stage and soon he launched into a teary, passionate and profuse apology, saying such things as, “I’m sorry I expect so much of you.” Well you probably guessed it if you didn’t see it: The person Will’s apologizing to is himself.
One likes to think of Americans as a warm people, a caring people, a sharing people-merciful and kind and all of that. If they are, they sure didn’t learn it from television. TV’s back to normal, and normal looks more abnormal than ever.