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FALL PROMOS: AN ASSAULT ON THE SENSES

Sep 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Maybe the shows themselves aren’t all that tantalizing, but promos for the new fall programs certainly don’t lack for sound and fury. Blam, blam, blam-and without so much as a thank you ma’am-the promos try to drive home the idea that we are about to be inundated with greatness, or at least lots of stuff flying through the air.

I have found some of the promos literally painful to watch. Network nervousness about dwindling audiences has licensed the promo makers to turn out harder and harder sells each year. ABC has enough trouble on its hands, admittedly, but I’m contemplating a class action suit for a promo aired during last week’s execrable “NFL Kickoff Live” special. The promo was a sock in the face on behalf of the new cops show “10-8” and the return of “Alias” and maybe one other show. It was such a lightning storm of kinetic trickery, I can’t really remember what I was being sold.

Maybe they threw in a subliminal edit or two in this promo of a thousand cuts, because I felt a strange throbbing urge to go have a Twinkie and to vote Republican in the next election. Heaven forbid.

Phil Spector, before his current unpleasantness with the law, was best known for developing the “Wall of Sound” in pop music. The needle on the VU meter never drops below maximum as the Spector wall closes in on you-like two walls, really, in those old movie serials where the hero and heroine were tossed into body-crusher machines (revived in the first “Star Wars” back in the ’70s).

Promos and commercials come at us now via a refined and hugely hyped variation on Spector’s approach-a wall of noise, maybe a wall of white noise, that tries to keep your eyeballs titillated with flashes, crashes, bashes. The editing is ruthlessness in the extreme; on the ABC promo in question, it was virtual strobe editing, and it made me, for a moment-and I’m not kidding-physically ill.

I felt slightly dizzy and nauseated, and not because the shows looked lousy. No reaction except a physical one really seemed possible. This kind of editing bypasses the thought centers of the brain and goes right to some other lobe that absorbs sensory assault-a lobe that, if you watch much TV, is constantly being bombarded, perhaps beyond its capacity.

You see it especially in movie trailers, mini-movies themselves that reduce virtually any film to a series of clashes and crashes-cars sailing through the air and into the sides of buildings or each other; tires shrieking as vehicles careen down streets; people socking and slugging one another over and over. Something must collide in nearly every cut. It would probably be possible, if somebody had the time, to make a crash-bang promo for “Leave It to Beaver” by going through the entire series and pulling out those few shots in which some kind of rapid action and combustion took place. Like maybe when Wally cut himself shaving or The Beaver fell into the giant bowl of soup on a big billboard.

Splice them together in shots that barely last a second and score it with superhyped heavy metal and in 30 brutal seconds you could make “Leave It to Beaver,” this gentlest of all domestic sitcoms, look like “Lethal Weapon 6.” But think about it; that’s the way every movie is advertised-well, maybe not “Amelie”-and now, perhaps thanks to beefed-up budgets (while everything else is being trimmed), those who work on network promos are adopting and honing the same techniques.

This is, to me, the real television violence, the violence done to your primal sensibilities. Those of us who’ve ponied up the dough for big-screen TVs (not that I don’t wuv my wovely Sony Wega) suffer more than those watching on 17- or 21-inchers. There’s no escape if the picture takes up much of your peripheral vision as well as your central focus. I am amazed that, among other things, we don’t hear more about seizures being triggered in epileptics from some of the blinkety-blink editing.

There’s so much of it that it becomes, finally, benumbing, and what some whiz kids envisioned would knock our socks off just makes us yawn. What it also tells viewers-when they see what lengths the networks will go to in overhyping and hard-selling a show-is that they are more desperate than ever to grab us by the lapels and shake us in the hope of getting noticed. They are whores for our attention.

Extremely short shock cuts are hardly new. Slavko Vorkapich, wizard of the montage, used them during the earthquake sequences of “San Francisco” way back in the ’30s. George Cukor brilliantly had an actor’s whole life flash before him as he looked into a mirror, gun to his head, during the suicide sequence of “What Price Hollywood?” But these were brief, deft touches of exclamatory punctuation. Nobody would have made a whole movie that looked like that, not without barf bags on the backs of theater seats.

Maybe the human mind is evolving, and children of the computer age can absorb images blasting them in much more rapid succession than previous generations could. Or maybe they’re just being put into semi-hypnotic trances. Watch them watch TV, you tend to see not an expression suggesting concern, involvement or heightened awareness but instead a blank stare. Like the devil tots in “Children of the Damned.”

I find myself retreating to C-SPAN every now and then not because the programming at that moment may be particularly scintillating but because here is a channel where, praise be, people sit still and the camera doesn’t dance, soar, vibrate or chick-a-boom-chick. Who’d ever have thought that staring at Brian Lamb’s sallow puss could turn out to be visually therapeutic?

But sooner or later you’ve got to gird your eyeballs, grab your extra-strength Visine and head back into the war zone. Watch a few continuous hours of TV these days and you’re liable to wind up not only feeling drugged, but mugged.