Talking trash TV

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the gap between the rich and poor in America widens-and am I ever on the wrong side of that one-so it seems does the gap between good television and bad. Passing out awards recently to the 10 best examples of TV storytelling in 2002, the American Film Institute judges and AFI Chairman Jean Firstenberg were struck by the wealth of first-class, well-written material. They didn’t have trouble digging up 10, they had trouble limiting the list to 10.
My feeling is there were just as many weekly hours of quality drama-and actually more weekly hours of decent comedy-during the original three-network era, the Golden Age. But the number of people around who remember back that far is dwindling every day. God forbid kids in schools be taught the history of television the way they are taught about motion pictures and literature. But that’s another column.
For every “CSI” and “ER” and-let’s see, any more acronymic TV titles?-well, for every good show there are a dozen bad, because, of course, there are dozens more sources beaming video into American homes. My feeling is that if the good stuff is better than it has been in years, the crap is even crappier. I mean, you watch some of these shows that are getting large numbers-or big digits, as Arsenio would say, and say again-and you despair for the state of the nation’s mental health. Maybe America is so hip now that it appreciates camp, once a cult kind of thing, and maybe people are laughing at “Celebrity Mole: Hawaii” instead of laughing with it. Or snoring with it, which would seem to be a more logical choice.
Of course, when you talk about crap in television, the name Arsenio, last name Hall, kind of inevitably pops up, even if Bill Clinton did do a bit of historic sax play on Hall’s old weeknight talk show. Hall, of course, hosts CBS’s current imitation of Fox’s “American Idol,” a wackily tacky revival of “Star Search,” itself an updated “Amateur Hour” that bought Ed McMahon many a round during its original run. Is it really true that the acidic cynic Dennis Miller made his TV breakthrough on that square and sappy series? Apparently it is.
Anyway, “Star Search” is live now, as Arsenio reminds us every four or five minutes. Often he uses the liveness as an excuse for mistakes made by him or someone else in the course of a show. It took him several episodes, or so it seems, to learn the rules and even then he had trouble reading them correctly off the cue cards. On a recent telecast he told the audience after a break that he “went crazy” just before the commercial “so I don’t know what I said” and instructed everyone to ignore it. That may have been a gratuitous request, considering.
I don’t want to pick on Hall, really I don’t. I want to like him. But that talk show of his drove me up the wall with all its self-congratulatory coolness and in the way Hall insisted on appropriating the latest-or maybe not the latest-street argot in his gibberishy babblings. We have him to thank for popularizing “Give it up for” so-and-so as a not-needed replacement for Ed Sullivan’s venerable “Let’s hear it for” so-and-so. Venerability, of course, is anathema to hot young radicals like Arsenio.
David Letterman has led the way in ridiculing Hall’s ridiculous cry of “show me the digits” when it’s time to display the results of viewer voting (via the Internet) for “Star Search” contestants, including those in the “model” category, whose challenge it is a model to walk down the catwalk and back up it again without, presumably, falling on her face. Quite a talent indeed!
Last week Hall, apparently feeling he wasn’t getting enough attention, tried new variations on his “digits” cry, including, lamentably, “Rub the digits and make them grow!” Ugh. He also stumblingly informed viewers that contestants in one category “may be minors, but in terms of age, they’re major. I mean, in terms of talent.” He keeps saying the show is running long, then waltzes off on some ostensibly comic riff of his own that eats up time.
He does have energy and pizzazz, let’s say that for him. And he often looks good compared to such insipid judges as Naomi Judd, with her endless hammy paeans to the great god fame, and Ben Stein, who endeavors to stretch the “anything for a buck” adage way, way out of shape. He described one leggy model on the last show as “finger-lickin’ good,” which earned him an elbow in the ribs from Judd. Maybe the show should be taped and edited for broadcast.
Of course, more people watch “American Idol” than watch “Star Search,” and you just have to scratch your head and wonder, What hath Fox wrought? I’ve already done my critic’s duty regarding that show, but then I admit I keep tuning in. Partly it’s to marvel at the vapidity of the current or recent music scene. These songs the contestants sing-they have no beginning, middle, end, no melodic shape at all, and they’re always “Girl, you hurt me when you walked out with my cellphone” or whatever. They’re never about anything. They make the corniest old moon-June-croon songs sound like masterpieces.
Then there’s the WB’s “Surreal Life,” another utterly worthless bomb that somehow issues the siren song of irresistibility: “Will it get worse this week?” Recovered addict Corey Feldman broke down and cried on the most recent show when a female member of the pack dissed him aboard a bus that the gang took to Las Vegas. Feldman was cheered, though, when he first saw the interior: “Check this pad out! Now this is a serious bus.”
And yet insanely enough, it all ended on a weirdly moving note, as MC Hammer conducted a church service back in L.A., and the dissipated rockster Vince Neil said a prayer for the 4-year-old daughter he lost to cancer. Earlier, the hour included the bizarre yet engaging spectacle of Hammer leading anonymous customers in dance steps inside a lowly Vegas Fat Burger stand. I think the producers of this show are trying to make it as bad as possible, but occasionally fate steps in and makes it seem almost-well, not good, exactly, but touching in some perversely screwed-up way.
Even in the Golden Age we had junk like “You Asked for It” and “Truth or Consequences” and “People Are Funny,” the “Fear Factors” of their day. Even so, it was a better class of crap. If you don’t remember, you’ll just have to trust me. Someone predicted that the TV audience would eventually split into upscale and downscale extremes, with upscalers opting for HBO and the networks having to cater to the bad taste of the lumpen proletariat. Catering to it is one thing-but working so hard to make it even worse just might qualify as a sin.