Resisting the false security of TV

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Jeez, I’m cranky. Even for me. But I seem to have a lot of company. People are just incredibly ticked off. They’re alternately irked and furious. These are times that really try men’s souls, and women’s too. We’ve never lived through anything exactly like this before, and so we don’t know quite how to behave.
We look to television for cues, but this is new to television, too. As usual, it’s easier to carp about what TV is doing than to come up with an alternative course of action. I do think there’s an intrinsic reassurance in the fact that TV just keeps going, keeps pouring out the sitcoms and the dramas, the huff and the fluff, the schlock and the slop.
I have referred to this as “the therapeutic effect of banality.” It’s like: “Oh, look, honey. Kellogg’s has a new cereal with strawberries in it.” Or “Oh boy, kitty litter that sparkles.” These trivial and distracting messages come with trivial and distracting television programs attached: Somebody’s pregnant on “Friends,” and somebody’s leaving “Judging Amy,” and the brothers are battling again on “Frasier.”
If you want to be reminded of the war on terrorism in prime time, you can go to Fox News or CNN or watch one of the network newsmagazines. But do you?
A jolt to reality
Frank Rich of The New York Times was certainly prescient when he predicted, soon after the tragic events in New York and Washington, that the audience would quickly lose its appetite for the so-called “reality” shows. Seldom has a trend come to so complete and abrupt a halt.
“The Mole” is gone. However gorgeous it is to look at, CBS’s latest “Survivor” series, shot in Africa, just isn’t cutting it. The same thing goes for “The Amazing Race,” which even a nonreality fan like myself thought was pretty damn nifty upon its debut and now never gives it a thought. People are not talking about the characters on these shows, not rooting for anybody, not getting caught up in intrigues or alliances. Everybody might as well pack up and come home.
Very high on the list of things I think everybody is desperate to see are Demonstrations of American Competence. In their way, well-produced TV shows fill that bill, and that may be part of the reassurance factor. We still produce the best commercial TV shows in the world, by God; we’ve mastered that.
But there are things more profoundly satisfying than a first-rate episode of “ER.” Chief among them, recently, was a short walk taken by the president of the United States-the short walk from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium, where George W. Bush threw out the first ball in Game 3 of the World Series.
Taunting the terrorists
It looked like a good, healthy throw, too-no sissy pitch from Bush. It also looked as though the president were wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket, because there was an odd bulkiness to it, and he had it zipped up to the top. No one could quibble with the wisdom of taking such precautions. It did nothing to hinder the bracing, bolstering effect of seeing him out there essentially taunting the terrorists, jeering at them, giving a thumbs-up and hurling that ball.
Of course, Fox had to screw things up a little bit with its enormous electronic billboards in the stadium. In any wide shot with the pitcher on the right, home plate on the left, the screen was dominated by one of these new superimposed banners: “Ally’s back, tomorrow night on Fox.” This was not only obnoxious, it was apparently ineffective, as Ms. McBeal returned for a new season with ratings that were definitely mediocre, banner or no banner.
During an actual commercial break, viewers saw one terrific spot, part of a campaign called “Live Brave.” Tommy Lasorda looked into the camera and said, “You wanna fight terrorism? Go to a ballgame!” And then he barked out a few ways in which going out to the ballpark had the effect of giving the finger to Osama bin Laden.
`Play Ball’
Major League Baseball sponsored another great commercial: “We mourn. We heal. We stand united. We play. But we never forget.” The last line was over a photo of the World Trade Center as it stood until the morning of Sept. 11. Up in the stands, meanwhile, fans unfurled a banner: “USA Fears Nobody. Play Ball.” You have to be moved. You have to be impressed.
Every network, of course, simply must put a label on its continuing coverage, a superficial way of making that coverage seem distinctive. “America on Guard,” “America Fights Back,” “America Recovers,” whatever. The titles could be more descriptive: “America Gets Sick and Tired of the FBI Telling Us to Be on High Alert While the President Tells Us to Go About Our Business as Usual.”
Over on CNN, and probably on other cable networks too, Robert Culp pops up now and then selling something called the American Guardian Homeguard Preparedness Kit. It consists mainly of a videotape (“How to shoot your neighbor if he breaks into your shelter”), plus a “survival pack” that looks like the stuff you find in the bathroom of a good hotel. It sells for $39.95, and dialing the 800 number to order it may be, Mr. Culp solemnly intones, the most important phone call you will ever make. Yes, the practice of cashing in on a crisis is very much with us, and for this crisis has probably only begun.
What should TV do that it isn’t doing? I wish I knew. One thing worries me about TV’s ability to banish thoughts of the war and the peril we face and the vicious obscenity of the Sept. 11 attacks: Are we going to use television like Prozac to lull us into a false security-perhaps even a tolerance, an acceptance, of an appalling and treacherous evil?
We need to stay angry. We need to remember the horror of that day in September. It was said in the days immediately following that the images of the airplanes crashing into the towers, and of the towers collapsing, and of people leaping from windows to escape the murderous heat, were being cheapened through overexposure, that they were being shown too often. And the networks largely pulled them from the air.
But there’s a danger in not showing them, too, isn’t there? In pretending it didn’t happen? Maybe those images should be replayed every now and then-brought out of the library and shown to us in all their horror, just so there is absolutely no possibility that we might forget.
Of course it will make us uncomfortable. It should. If TV lets us get too comfortable, the war will be over. And we will have lost.