Down the Tubes | Essay | Chicago Reader

Down the Tubes 

With the new season's lineup, TV has hit rock bottom and started digging.

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They say in recovery programs that the first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem. The start of the new TV season has persuaded me the networks might finally be on the verge of this momentous breakthrough. Oh, I know I say that every season, and every season I'm proved wrong. But I'm really serious this time. TV can't get any worse. The new season is so bad that it has to represent some kind of ultimate creative vapor lock. I don't see how it's possible to make a series with fewer laughs than Encore! Encore! or one that insults the spectator with more self-destructive spite than Costello or that flickers as dimly on the edge of a blank screen as Mercy Point. These aren't TV series--they're desperate cries for help.

The most plaintive of them is, or was, Costello, on Fox--in fact, I don't think I've ever seen a series that seemed so much like a suicide note. It was supposed to be about a bar in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in South Boston, but sometime during production it underwent a convulsive seizure of disgust with its subject matter and emerged as an impassioned denunciation of the idiocy and squalor of American working-class life. It didn't even try to suggest that its prole characters were really lovable lugs underneath their crude surface; every single person on every episode was a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling cretinous psychopath. The unrelenting torrent of drunken, abusive banter was so intolerable it had to have been a deliberate act of self-sabotage. But I will say one thing for the series: it gave those of us viewers of Irish descent a chance to contemplate the current state of Irish dramatic writing in comparison with the great days of Shaw and Synge. The high point for verbal eloquence on Costello came in the pilot episode, when the heroine and her nemesis exchanged the ringing epithets "Bitch!" and "Whore!" It's been a long road down from Saint Joan and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

Alternatively, one could contemplate the lead, a stand-up comic named Sue Costello. Her presence could only be explained as another act of deliberate subversion--presumably by some ultrafastidious Fox executive who'd grown disgusted with TV's practice of building sitcoms around stand-up comics with no acting ability. Granted, it's been painful in recent years watching flint-hearted jokesters like Tim Allen and Brett Butler struggle with the task of expressing basic human emotions (Jerry Seinfeld, wisely, never attempted it). But they were charter members of the Royal Shakespeare Company compared with Ms. Costello. She could barely even talk, and she had the unsettling habit of pausing after each mangled punch line and regarding the other actors with a baleful smirk, as though threatening to have them fired if they made fun of her. I don't know when I've seen such belligerent incompetence. It was like watching the neighborhood bully take the starring role in a grammar-school play.

To be fair, there's always at least one show on the fall schedule that's so bad it knocks the wind out of you and that's immediately canceled just so the programmers can claim they still retain some shred of human decency. The problem is that Costello isn't much worse than the average product this year. UPN has a stunningly inept show called The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, which has attracted so many protests it seems to be lurching through the program grid like Frankenstein's monster pursued by crowds of villagers with torches. It's an attempt to do political satire by transposing the Clinton scandals back in time to the Lincoln presidency--so if you've ever wanted to see Lincoln trashed as a moronic, venal, sex-crazed oaf from the sticks, here's your chance. Some spectacularly ill-judged jokes about slavery in the pilot episode (still not broadcast), apparently thrown in for period flavor, are what have attracted the complaints--though my guess is they fit right in with the general atmosphere of mean-spirited idiocy. The decision to ridicule Mary Todd Lincoln as a freaked-out proto-Hillary struck me as particularly ungallant.

NBC has an even more painful show, Encore! Encore!, which is as befuddled by rich people as Costello was disgusted by the working class. It's made by the team responsible for Frasier and seems intended to demonstrate how much of a creative miracle that show's upmarket veneer really is. The lead in Encore! Encore! is a world-famous operatic tenor who loses his voice and goes home to the family business, a small but fabulously successful winery. Well, God knows, we've all been there, but I think we all could have pointed out what an unworkable premise this is for a sitcom. A remote mansion deep in the California wine country, where the nearest wacky neighbor is miles away? It sounds more like a recipe for cabin fever; The Shining with cabernet sauvignon. The pilot episode had to introduce a wisecracking limo driver just to cover the interminable shuttle back to civilization. As if to prove that there are no laughs to be wrung from the premise, some sadist in NBC programming hired a cast worthy of Congreve--including Nathan Lane, Glenne Headly, and Joan Plowright--and then sat back to watch them drown in flop sweat. But professionalism is its own reward: they're all bound to be on their way to something better soon, because the buzzards of cancellation are already circling.

The real issue is, why a ridiculous winery? Because it was down to that or a nuclear submarine. TV has used up every conceivable setting for a series and is now reduced to rummaging through the discards of the discards, like a chain-smoker searching an ashtray for usable butts. You think I'm exaggerating? Consider a running gag on NBC's new sitcom Jesse: the setting is Buffalo, New York, and one of the characters is Chilean. That's it--that's the gag. It's Buffalo, but he's from Chile! Think of the Rabelaisian possibilities! NBC had another new show, Wind on Water--already canceled--which was about surfing cowboys. They drove their herds of cattle into town like John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, and then they smoothly pulled surfboards out from under their cowboy gear and hit the beach. The narrator in the pilot episode, trying to make these scenes less surreal, only made things worse when he explained that Oahu--or wherever the hell they were--was "the Montana of the Hawaiian Islands." Doubtless Montana has changed a lot since the last time I was there, but I hadn't realized its inhabitants had taken up surfing.

Yet that kind of goofiness is to be treasured compared with what other new shows are offering--worn-out retreads of overfamiliar premises--while they await the inevitable cancellation in a state of lotus-eating languor. NBC has a wildly hyped new drama called Trinity that's made by the ER team. It does bear some resemblance to that show, in that it's a jumble of underwritten subplots crosscut in splinters, but it stands apart in its conceptual bankruptcy. It's a soap opera about three Irish-American brothers--I'm bone weary and heartsick just typing this out--and guess what? One's a cop, one's a priest, and one's a mob guy. So you don't mistake it for some 30s melodrama starring George Raft, Pat O'Brien, and James Cagney, they've thrown in a pair of sisters (evidently a last-minute decision, leaving no time to recalibrate the title) who are strictly 90s kitsch: one's a pregnant drug addict, the other's a yuppified Wall Street trader having an affair with a married man--she expresses the conflict between her roots and her trendy lifestyle with lines like "He's taking his wife to friggin' Provence!" Talk about surreal--it's like PBS dubbed for the bar in Costello.

But if you think this is the most exhausted show TV has to offer, you didn't see Mercy Point, on UPN, which was about an emergency room in an outer-space hospital. It's already been yanked (though the remaining episodes will be played later in the season), which is a pity, because I've got several unanswered questions about the premise. I'd particularly like to know how long it takes to transport a critically ill patient to an emergency room outside the solar system (I hope it's quicker than trying to get to Cook County at rush hour) and what percentage of the ambulance fee is picked up by the interstellar HMO. But I'm afraid the producers regarded all such pesky details as beyond their area of interest; they couldn't even be bothered to make up plots. The pilot episode dragged out that absurd chestnut about a computer virus that can infect people--which had received its definitive, albeit unintentional, parody on William Shatner's Tekwar series. Mercy Point's real business was to rip off ER. Most of the show consisted of those trademark ER shots where the camera whirls around a body on a stretcher while the doctors snap out orders. But since this ER was equipped with futuristic drugs and surgical gadgets, the writers didn't have to learn anything about medicine. All they had to do was replace ER's medicogibberish with real gibberish.

So is that the bottom of the barrel? Not quite. There's a new trend this season that represents an act of creative desperation I would have thought was beyond the reach of even the most cynical programmer--a 70s revival. A bunch of new shows--Buddy Faro, That '70s Show, and Fantasy Island--are looking for inspiration to the only period in recent American cultural history even more dreadful than the one we're in now.

Of course, this being TV it's a half-assed and self-canceling revival. Buddy Faro, for instance, is a Rip van Winkle story about a famous private eye who disappeared in 1978 and has now come back to cope with the horrible 90s. The joke is that he represents a lost ideal of 70s masculine virtue sorely needed in our PC wasteland. Or at least I think that was going to be the joke, and it would probably have been pretty alarming if it had been done with any consistency. But Faro turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with the 70s. His suave lounge-lizard attitude, his constant allusions to the Rat Pack and Radio Free Europe, his vintage Ford Thunderbird--all carbon-date to 1963 at the latest. He would have been as unthinkable an apparition in a disco as a goateed beatnik with a set of bongo drums. So what happened? I'm guessing that when the producers really contemplated the 70s ideal of masculinity--say, the smirking, gum-popping Burt Reynolds of Smokey and the Bandit--they recoiled in horror and retreated to an earlier form of machismo they thought an audience today might be able to stomach.

A similar failure of nerve bedevils That '70s Show, which is supposed to be a spoof of ultrasterile suburban sitcoms like The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch. This show lays on the period kitsch with a trowel--there are so many vile clothes and viler objects on display you'd think you were trapped in a resale store in hell. But where it goes wrong is in its easy superiority. Its idea of satire is to throw in the occasional dirty joke, as though that shows up the naivete of its targets. But that's missing the point. The Brady Bunch wasn't chaste because it was naive. It was monstrously sophisticated, seeking out and expunging every hint of sex--of every recognizable form of human behavior--in order to present its sitcom formulas with the purity of equations in the void. Not even William Burroughs offered an image of American life as sterile as this--no wonder Generation X reveres it.

The only show that really tries to duplicate the darkness of its source is the new Fantasy Island. In fact, it has the gall to claim that it's even darker; more than once I've seen it described, in press releases and in TV Guide, as "not your father's Fantasy Island." I have news for them: my father didn't have a fantasy island. What they're suggesting is that this new show is a cutting-edge subversion of the bland original. The truth is that the original was one of the most psychically oppressive shows in the history of TV, compared with which the remake is as weak as a Saturday morning cartoon.

It does make a few vague gestures toward being sinister. The washed-out flatness of the old show has been replaced by trendy neogothic--weird camera angles and splashes of designer color make it look like a haunted house designed by Martha Stewart. This is in keeping with the new take on the island's mysterious deity, Mr. Roarke. In the original he was the wise and solemn Ricardo Montalban, always dispensing bromides about reality versus illusion; now he's the ravingly eccentric Malcolm McDowell, who seems to inhabit a zone of turbocharged perversity somewhere between a game-show host and Doctor Moreau, and who plainly doesn't give a damn about teaching anybody anything. The fantasy vacations too are different. They used to be as sternly moralistic as Pilgrim's Progress; now they're reduced to surreal obstacle courses that seem to have no purpose other than their own absurdity--they're like those pointlessly grueling ordeals marketed to rich people as "extreme" sports.

I'll admit that this show is kind of creepy to watch, but it still misses the point. The original Fantasy Island was never really about fantasies; they were just a pretext. It was an attack on the concept of celebrity. As with its companion show The Love Boat, the premise was just an excuse to bring on a parade of washed-up guest stars, who were being granted a last little bone of an acting job before they were consigned to oblivion. In a way, it was a perfect commentary on its time: back then fame was another bankrupt commodity that needed to be used up as quickly as possible so we could get on to the next disillusion. We're not so hasty now; in fact, we're so desperate to be reillusioned that we're going in the other direction, reviving obsolescent pop icons and investing them with a dark aura of potency and significance.

The new show wouldn't dare make fun of celebrity. The sad succession of has-beens has disappeared; now the guest stars are a normal assortment of anonymous working stiffs, the kind you expect to see next week being harassed by the cops on Law & Order. They're really there only for Roarke's sake--he's now the whole show. In the old version it was always a bit equivocal whether he had supernatural powers; now they're the whole point. He dances magically through every scene like a dervish--floating beside a skydiver here, insinuating himself into somebody's martini glass there, taunting and cackling. And why shouldn't he enjoy himself? He's got the one quality denied everybody else on the fall schedule: name recognition. It may not be much, but on TV it's a value worth clinging to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jeff Heller.

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