On TV: The Devil in Ms. Jones | Essay | Chicago Reader

On TV: The Devil in Ms. Jones 

From Jenny Jones to prime-time, sometimes it seems as if all of television was invented only to humiliate people in front of an entire continent.

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I realize it's been a tough year all around, but let's take a moment here and extend our sympathy to those who are worse off than we are. I refer, of course, to people on TV. And I mean everyone on TV: talk show hosts, network news anchors, bit players on low-rated sitcoms--all those who spend a significant portion of their lives being translated into pulses of high- frequency electromagnetic pollution. Oh, sure, some of them make more money in five minutes than your or my entire family tree ever did, all the way back to the Stone Age. But at least when things go wrong for us, it happens in private. Sometimes it seems as if the whole technology of television was invented only to humiliate people in front of an entire continent.

In that spirit, I express my condolences first to the lowliest caste of TV unfortunates: guests on the Jenny Jones Show. I don't even want to think about how dismal things must have been for them before their appearance--they're obviously there because they've never once had a sympathetic listener in their lives, until the moment they made that fatal call. And they were plainly dazzled by the response: free airline tickets, room service at the hotel, careful and enthusiastic prepping by a charming producer. But then Jenny herself steps in to collect the tab. The guests are shoved out in front of a crowd so screechingly intolerant they make Rush Limbaugh's callers look like Voltaire and Diderot--they appear to think that anybody who has sex for any reason is a despicable slug. Jenny prowls the aisles, stoking outrage and revulsion, taunting the guests by repeating every last bit of gossip they'd mistakenly blurted out in confidence to the producer. Then comes the punch line to this horror show--in a sudden seizure of good sense, as they see their lives going down in flames, the guests try to take back the most spiteful things they'd been coaxed into saying before the show: no, the sister-in-law didn't do a striptease in a back room at the wedding reception; no, the old boyfriend wasn't leaving his new wife every night to come by for a little visit; no, they don't want to cause their family and friends any more torment than they already have.

Does Jenny now relent? Does she consider that maybe abject misery should be comforted instead of ridiculed? She pauses, brandishes her index card, and says, "That's not what you told our producer."

It's as close as any of us will ever come to knowing while still on this earth what the moment of eternal damnation feels like. The antechamber to hell must be set up just like the Jenny Jones Show. The audience is a crowd of demons, who whoop and wail and hurl curses at every new guest; Satan walks around with a microphone, encouraging the damned souls onstage to try, just try, to justify their sordid lives, their corruptions, their very presence here. A last illusory glimpse of hope, even a moment of repentance, will briefly light up a sinner's face; he blurts out a wild denial or legalistic evasion. Satan shakes his head, shows the relevant card prepared by the recording angel, and says, "That's not what you said in your heart." Then the demons descend. During the commercial break, the guests are dragged off screaming to the pit, and a new group of damned souls are brought in for the next segment.

Could anything else on TV be worse than that? The sad truth is, while TV may not descend any deeper into the heart of darkness, it routinely displays forms of degradation that are more prolonged. You can watch spiritual death by inches every weeknight on NBC, right after the ten o'clock news, when the Tonight show comes on.

For a year and a half, Jay Leno has been trying to coax some sign of human sympathy from his bandleader, Branford Marsalis, and every night he is brutally squashed. Every invitation to josh around, every lame private joke, every softball of a setup goes feebly flying across the abyss of the stage, to be shot down by Marsalis's laserlike hate-stare. "Did you see that TV movie last night, Branford?" "No." "You going to watch the big game this weekend?" "Which one?" "Any one." "No."

Leno has the soul of a stand-up comic--which is to say, he needs universal and continual approval. Where better to find it than on TV? And yet, like any hapless guest on Jenny Jones, what he has found instead is an adversary who takes a unique and exquisite joy in disapproving of him. Marsalis refuses to like him, yet Leno simply refuses to believe he isn't liked. He won't stop trying to get through to Marsalis, even if it kills him. It's like watching tapes of a doomed polar expedition. Mercifully, Marsalis is leaving at the end of the year--otherwise, some night this winter, Leno might just burst into tears midway through the monologue.

The deeper question is why Leno still has a talk show at all, when he would so plainly find more emotional gratification doing his stand-up act at a fleapit strip club on a rainy Tuesday night. My guess is, the executive in charge of late-night programming at NBC is a Jenny Jones buff: he enjoys neediness and desperation as a form of theater. But it's not enough for him to see a luckless but basically incidental civilian sweat for fifteen minutes and then get consigned to the void. He wants to be able to watch his indentured servants writhe in perpetual agony.

Look at what he's put on after Leno: Conan O'Brien and Greg Kinnear-- two men for whom antianxiety drugs might have been specifically invented. If only because he's burning out, O'Brien has lost that spellbinding air of panic he used to have--like an ordinary passenger forced to land a 747. That's why Kinnear had to be hired: to spike the tension level back up into the stratosphere. The peak moment for anxiety junkies so far has been Kinnear's interview with Eric Stoltz, who somehow sensed he'd found the perfect target for his antishowbiz actorly contempt, and simply refused to respond to any questions except with grunts and shrugs. Since Kinnear only has one guest a night, he was doomed. His slick self-possession was running on fumes by the first commercial break, and by the end of the show, he was doing an extraordinary, if wholly involuntary, impersonation of a man trapped in a bell jar while the air was being sucked out. The NBC executive probably sent Stoltz roses and champagne the next day.

But if that anonymous sadist is going to get promoted to the prime-time division, he's going to have to stop holding back. Prime time is where we see coldhearted humiliation at its most aggressive and profound--especially on shows that put the highest value on being class acts. Northern Exposure and NYPD Blue each lost its lead actor this season, and in each case the producers courteously took the trouble to make their departing employee look as bad as possible. The trashing was so expertly done, Jenny Jones herself could have taken lessons. Everybody who watches Showbiz Today on CNN now knows--even though the producers never once said a harsh word--that both Rob Morrow, who plays Dr. Fleischman on Northern Exposure, and David Caruso, who played Kelly on NYPD Blue, were let go because they were behaving like spoiled crybabies. Their crimes were that they were tired of their shows and wanted bigger salaries. Consider the truly advanced malice required to insinuate with a straight face that only an insupportable egomaniac could get bored working on TV; or that it was grotesquely dishonorable for the star of a hit series to be as greedy as its producers.

The shows saved their most inventive revenges, though, for the scripts the actors were contractually obligated to perform. On Northern Exposure, as relations between Morrow and the production company worsened over the years, Fleischman gradually devolved from a homesick New Yorker into an unappeasable whiner, a black hole of self-pity and surliness whose very presence poisoned the magical sunniness of Cicely. When the show decided to write Fleischman out, they couldn't even bring themselves to grant him his simple wish for a return ticket to La Guardia. Instead, they've exiled him to a remote fishing village in the Alaskan wilderness, a squalid collection of huts that makes Cicely seem as exotically cosmopolitan as Shanghai between the wars. You can almost hear the producers sneering, You didn't like life in our whimsical wonderland? Fine: here's reality for you, pal.

It makes no difference to anyone except viewers--and God knows, we don't figure into the equation at all--that this persecution of their lead character has reduced Northern Exposure to a shambles. Morrow wasn't some second-stringer unhappy with his meager page count; Fleischman was the core of the show's premise. Inevitably, then, the producers have written in a replacement doctor, who can be charmingly befuddled by the supernatural townspeople all over again. The problem is, nobody's heart is in it anymore. The new doctor and his wife are pale cliches--yuppies wanting to get back to the land while keeping their laptops and their designer risotto. Meanwhile, following the lead of Marilyn the receptionist, whose energy level is asymptotically approaching zero, the old hands are so worn out and listless you wonder if they've been raiding Fleischman's prescription cabinet while he's been upriver. Maybe it would have been better to have ditched the doctor premise altogether and brought in a crime-solving ecoterrorist.

By comparison David Caruso's departure from NYPD Blue was like a surgical air strike. His character wasn't handed a heroic death or a millionaire wife, as one might have expected. Instead he was incinerated where he stood: without warning, he was reassigned by his arbitrarily malign captain to the most humiliating job in the history of policing (the radio dispatch department--evidently one step below the doughnut requisition patrol), and he quit the force in disgust. His name was snipped out of the title sequence and Jimmy Smits's name was spliced in so seamlessly it was as though the producers genuinely thought nobody would notice the switch.

That is TV at its most purely contemptuous--of its employees and its audience. The central character of a show is degraded, dismissed, and obliterated--and we're not supposed to care. You or I would have supposed that, say, Raymond Burr's death last year would have put an end to Perry Mason. But why should that break the producers' stride? Hal Holbrook is suddenly doing TV movies billed as The Perry Mason Mysteries in which he plays some big-shot lawyer who offhandedly claims to have been Perry Mason's friend. And who's to say he's a liar? Mason probably had a lot of friends--so in case Holbrook becomes unhappy, Chad Everett or Dabney Coleman is probably already on deck.

I'm sure many shows would like to solve their star problems so elegantly. Midway through an episode of the disastrous new Gene Wilder sitcom Something Wilder, for instance, Wilder could disappear by spontaneous human combustion and in his place might be Bob Newhart, as an inn-keeping psychiatrist who had once bumped into Wilder's character at a party. The title, the sets, and the other characters would stay the same; and the audience would respond with a vague glimmer of recognition, like Homer Simpson in a stupor, stirring feebly at the mention of his favorite beer.

If this becomes a trend, TV could become more satisfying for producers and network executives. The entire schedule could be redesigned as a kind of enormous Jenny Jones Show, where emotionally needy actors are humiliated and tossed aside during the commercial breaks, and a new crowd is brought in from the infinite line of hopefuls waiting in the green room.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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