California’s Putting On Another Show For Us

Aug 11, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Among the latest to file in the race for the governorship of California are Sid & Marty Krofft, Doc Severinsen, C. Thomas Howell, Paula Poundstone, Jimmy Hoffa, Bullwinkle J. Moose, Rap Master Flash, Flash Master Rap, Chuck Woolery, Aaron Sorkin, Betty White, Judge Judy, Jermaine Jackson, Lyle Waggoner and (with apologies to Art Fern) Suck, the Wonder Leech.
All these plus Arnold Schwarzenegger too, who used the silly pulpit of “The Tonight Show” to make his “official” announcement and then, the next day, could be seen hopping and skipping and of course bionic-grinning his way through newsreel footage shot around the state. Schwarzenegger is running on the Pathetic Oaf ticket with support from the Coalition of Has-Beens Whose Movies Flop. It’s all too terribly funny, in a terribly sorrowful sort of way.
Anchors and commentators have been quick to affix the word “circus” to the current carnival in California, precipitated by a drive to recall sadsack Gov. Gray (how aptly named) Davis. On “Nightline,” Ted Koppel called the California crisis simply “one large chaotic mess,” but doesn’t that describe California all the time? “This is becoming a sideshow for international television,” moaned a state senator in “Nightline” footage, but he’s wrong; it’s moving from sideshow into the main ring. It’s becoming the big attraction under the big top.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that California, home to the Dream Factories-the studios, the networks, the production facilities-and of course to Disneyland, is now itself one large stage on which is being performed a uniquely ridiculous farce. California really has always been there for the amusement of the other 49 states, whether it was the political theater staged at Berkeley during the turbulent Sixties or the very entertaining governorship of Ronald Reagan-a preview of his presidency yet to come-or the famous Rodney King riots covered live and transmitted across the country.
It could be that people in other cities were so entranced by the riots being staged in Los Angeles that they forgot to riot themselves. California’s trauma may thus have helped prevent a more widespread national upheaval. And say, how about that O.J. Simpson motor cavalcade? That was such a big show that it blew poor David Hasselhoff’s long-planned pay-per-view concert right out of the water. Or maybe right into the water-whatever.
What California is demonstrating now is why the United States of America is a republic and not a democracy. Democracy in its purest state can obviously be an ungodly nightmare. You can’t have everybody voting on everything all the time. Even the Nielsen Media Research knows that. Who knows but that American television might be even worse if Nielsen were somehow able to meter and analyze data from every single TV household in the country at any given hour? We are probably safr with the representative system we have now, with the sample numbering in the thousands of homes rather than the millions.
Arianna Huffington’s entry into the race guarantees there’ll be some good speeches, perhaps more than C-SPAN can accommodate, and at least her accent is more intelligible than Arnold’s. How can he have lived here so long and made so much American money and still be so hard to understand? A Hollywood friend tells me that when Arnold attends soccer games in which one of his kids is a competitor, he will run along on the sidelines as they move down the field toward the goal shouting out loudly, “Close da deal! Close da deal!” He wouldn’t want a loser in the family, even if the box office on “Terminator Trois” wasn’t quite what had been hoped for.
If more people had gone to see that movie, Arnold might have stayed where he belonged, in the fantasyland of the movies rather than in the fantasyland of California politics.
A California man on the street-presumably, Stupid Street-said in a “Nightline” sound bite, “I distrust people who’ve been in politics a long time.” There’s a genius for you. He distrusts people who’ve been in politics and therefore might conceivably know what they’re doing. Is there any other field of endeavor in which people prefer “professionals” who are new to the job, who lack experience, and who boast of that? I can’t quite see a doctor, dentist or lawyer proudly announcing how briefly he’d been practicing, or an airline pilot bragging that he’d hardly logged any flying miles.
But then amateurism generally has gained a strange new popularity in America. “Reality” television essentially hands acting jobs to everyday Joes and Joans off the street, as do the “Jerry Springer” and “Jenny Jones” donnybrooks. “American Idol” is a celebration of amateurism; so, in a way, is “Survivor” (and of course “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn,” though Craig probably wouldn’t agree). And if you want to sell porno (and you might), stick “amateur” on the package and you somehow up the ante, so to speak (“Up the Auntie” is in fact the title of an X-rated film now in production. Or, well, it might be-just as all those people in the first paragraph could conceivably be running for governor).
In the midst of all this frivolity and merriment comes a genuinely unhappy event. Howard Rosenberg, for more than two decades the feisty and demanding television critic of the Los Angeles Times, has decided to retire, and a farewell column was published Friday. This is a loss not just for the stuffy old Times, for Los Angeles, and for poor old bedraggled California, but for television itself and for all those who still hold out hope for it. Rosenberg had high standards; expect his replacement, whoever it is, to have lower ones.
He didn’t quit so he could run for governor, either. One Howard Rosenberg is worth a thousand Arnold Schwarzeneggers-but ugh, what a repulsive thought that is.