After a week of convalescence, the aftermath of a smashed forearm I have less and less interest in thinking about, I have learned a lot about myself, especially discovering the inner self who’s a connoisseur of crap TV.
Many apparently smart people once avoided television as a matter of principle, as I always promised myself I would. I was convinced that I’d never let corporate interests despoil my mental virtue. I pictured myself, in middle age, content with a stack of provocative old and new books; an especially interesting variety of friends; a big jug of robust burgundy; and maybe a radio to keep me apprised of approaching cyclones.
It’s still an appealing image. For several years of my young adulthood, I owned no television. I encountered Three’s Company and The Love Boat only in bars, the TV there only for the cheerful light it cast, but muted in unanimous preference for the jukebox. Sometimes strangers and I would speculate on which one was Starsky, which one Hutch, and what the carefully coifed lads were up to this week.
As I figured it, my generation would be the first to emerge from the distractions of noisy electronic gadgetry, to live life more elementally, more earnestly than our consumer-product-addled parents and grandparents.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. A television arrived in my life about the same time parenthood did, but the profession I chose doesn’t leave you looking for ways to fill the empty hours. I’ve never watched four, or six, or eight hours a day. But it can seem almost normal when your arm hurts like hell and you’re taking drugs that make you feel like a befuddled baby.
The three days in a hospital room with cable TV were perplexing. I got home, where we don’t have cable, but what we do have are four or five networks, plus several of those new digital bandwidth freeloader stations that play old movies and reruns.
After a full week of careful study in cable and aerial-broadcast conditions, I’ve concluded that the picture tube is an inherently limited medium. In fact, maybe the seven or eight rabbit-ear channels we can pick up are already straining the boundaries of human imagination. Everything seems like something else on another channel. The contrived reality-TV challenge, its own frantically happy talk shows, its own aspiring personality-cult celebrities, some trying to become known by first name only, like Tyra, Chelsea, or “Simply Ming.” Some have earned titles, like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil—neither of whom are on The Doctors, which, I learned, is not the same as the dark old soap opera of the same title.
Sometimes these celebrities convene on a stage behind a liver-shaped counter where they discuss pro football, family health, conservative politics, delicious food, or other celebrities.
Often you can find a sports option. But I’ve found that football is acutely uncomfortable to watch with a broken arm. Baseball’s tolerable, as long as they don’t slide.
So this is how I’ve spent my last week. I switch around until I see an image in black and white. There I expect to find something interesting.
That strategy works partly just because it’s effective at getting safely past the ’70s sandtraps. TV is littered with disco-era reruns. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s proof that people can be nostalgic about anything, but I didn’t have any use for the ’70s even in the ’70s, even when we all looked like that.
And often the black-and-white stuff seems better written, maybe because it was the idealistic early days of TV, of Serling and Hitchcock, when producers thought they could bring genius to the masses. My big discovery of the past week has been what may be the best cop show of all time, Naked City. It was canceled in 1962; I’d never seen it before. It out-grits any 21st-century pretender. Though hyper-realistic—the bad guys sometimes get away—it offers room for stranger-than-fiction aberrations. Friday’s show included a bizarre scene with Burgess Meredith and Alan Alda in a crowded hipster dive, shouting beat death poetry at each other.
It’s not that old TV is better than new TV. The apt phrase “vast wasteland” dates back to 1961, after all. Some old stuff can make you cringe.
Part of what makes the old stuff fun to watch is new technology. The Internet Movie Database makes every drama four-dimensional. We can watch the main drama as we learn the backstories: find out who all these bit players are, where they came from and what happened to them. Early TV is full of old silent stars unheralded in bit parts, as well as up-and-comers in tiny roles, sex symbols of a later era, all unrecognized by the contemporary audience. The Beverly Hillbillies might seem a silly subject for research; I looked up the bouncy brunette working as a secretary in Mr. Drysdale’s office last week. Her name was Sharon Tate.
I fear my new hobby may strike some as sad. Are other people who research for a living so afflicted? Can we not just relax and enjoy the jokes?
If I have another week or two of this, here’s the phenomenon on which I intend to build my reputation. In many early TV dramas, the entire ensemble cast has since died. But there’s one particularly provocative pattern of fates I run across repeatedly. It’s exemplified by a classic in the Alfred Hitchcock Hour series, made about 50 years ago: “Day of Reckoning.”
That episode boasted an unusually large cast. But everybody—the killer, several witnesses, the cops—has since died. With one exception: the murder victim, a lovely young brunette in a white gown, dispatched over the railing of a yacht early in the story. In the show, the rest of the cast wonder about her mysterious demise. But now the mourners are all dead, and the victim is an 83-year-old retiree in Salt Lake City.
I will call it the Neely Paradox. I hope I feel better soon.