Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Television ought to be a sure-fire cure for depression. After all, it’s a 24-hour entertainment machine with dozens and dozens of choices-shouldn’t that do the trick? Of course, some people would call it a 24-hour crap dispenser, those cranks. And yet the fact is TV can be amazingly ineffective at banishing depression. Instead, it pushes prescription antidepressants like Paxil and Wellbutrin, as if to admit its own defeat as a cure or even a palliative. Maybe someone will start an antidepressive channel, but there would probably be something depressing about it.
People who scoff at the notion of clinical depression and think it’s sissified to categorize it as a “disease” ought to get it for two or three years; that would change their tunes. Distraction can be just the thing for the simple blues, of course-even watching a show about the blues might help relieve the blues. In television, after all, one has a mechanism with a virtually perpetual desire to please. On each of those proverbial 500 channels, there is someone trying to win you over, amuse you, cheer you, engage you. That oughta cheer you up! You must be very important!
Once you had to be a king to have a court jester. Now you have one at hand ’round the clock. Strange, though, how cold and cunning that jester can seem.
Robert Morley, who was a brilliant raconteur as well as a versatile actor, said once on “The Jack Paar Program” that he was tired of complaints about television. After all, he said, it’s “the greatest cure for loneliness ever invented.” But there are times when TV can actually make a person feel lonelier-alienated or rejected. “Here are all these choices,” you think, “and nothing of interest to me. Perhaps it’s my fault.”
(By the way, in 20 or 30 years, there probably won’t be anyone around who remembers what a “raconteur” was. The word will die out through lack of use.)
What makes TV dangerous to the seriously depressed is its parade of what TV itself used to call, when equipment failure interrupted a program, “circumstances beyond our control.” If you watch too much news-and that’s easy these days-you get a chilling, daunting sense of a world spinning out of control, and you, there in your favorite chair, are powerless to do anything about it.
Ah, for the carefree days when all we lived under were the threat of communist domination and the possible destruction of the world by nuclear superpowers. These were such abstract nemeses, so removed. The Commies didn’t make all that much news except when they did dastardly things like roll into Hungary or plop missiles down in Cuba. Khrushchev, that old Teletubby, was even kind of cute, bangin’ his shoe on a desk at the U.N. or quibbling with Nixon in a mock-up kitchen.
But terrorists never rest and neither does news about terrorism. It is always there, and the awful specter of 9/11 will be invoked many times every week in terrorist-related stories. For the most part, TV news seems not to have been reckless in overplaying footage of that monstrous mass murder, but merely abbreviating it to the shorthandish “9/11” demeans it in some way.
Of course, on many a channel one encounters laughter instead of the real world (or the manipulated “reality” served up by unscripted trash). But augmented or manufactured laughter at jokes or situations that aren’t remotely funny-as is so common in network sitcoms-can in itself be numbing and depressing. It’s like listening to a roomful of crazy people laughing at random, at nothing, all dead between the ears. Faked happiness, meanwhile, is rampant, in the phony bonhomie of local anchor teams that all love one another so much (and particularly adore the loud dolt who does sports and the fey nerd who does weather) and in the elation displayed by happy customers in commercials for products that many of us know firsthand are junk.
We even know we’re being lied to-by credit card companies, banks, drug companies, car companies and all those announcers on the cheapie late-night spots who say we can get a $74 value for $14.98. Still, elation abounds. People dance in the street and turn cartwheels because they can have erections. They’re fit and active and ruddy even if they’ve had a heart attack or a stroke. Breakfast cereals can make them ecstatic. Frozen foods can make them orgasmic. And beer drives them utterly nuts with pleasure. You sit there and wonder why you can’t be as happy as the people in the ads. “What’s wrong with ME?”
You’d think TV shows that chronicle the repetitious rompings of celebrities would depress folks at home struggling to make mortgage payments, and yet there’s this huge masochistic market for poop about silly-ass stars. Viewers ooh and ahh with delight when allowed inside the mansion of some creepy rock thug (MTV’s “Cribs”) instead of deeply resenting the ostentatious display of dubiously gotten goods. The Ben Afflecks of the world like being followed on shopping trips to Rodeo Drive and assume those watching will find it lovely, not sinful, that they can spend a hundred grand on a watch or a million on a bauble.
Some things on TV can make me laugh even when life seems its cruelest and most hopeless: Conan O’Brien (especially during his first 15 minutes), Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO (which just went out with a deeply hilarious and oddly affecting season finale) and, of course, Lucy-Lucy, Lucy, Lucy-though TV Land keeps sadistically moving her show around. And those new animated United Airlines commercials with the “Rhapsody in Blue” accompaniment are beautiful. I smile.
There are other happy exceptions. In the end, though, the best way to cure depression with television may be the simplest: Turn the damn thing off.