It’s hard not to be torn on the value of television but it’s impact is undeniable. It’s sound and flickering lights have served as a backdrop for most of American life and it is a rare home that does not contain at least one and often many more screens in each dwelling. I was part of the first generation that grew up in a world of television. One of my first memories was of the day when my father took me at the age of four to Korvette’s Department store in Trenton, New Jersey to buy our first television set. It was black and white model, color TV had yet to be invented, and it’s screen was roughly the size of a lunchbox, but it marked our family as having moved into the modern world. My father wanted it to be a surprise for my mother and so when we went to pick her up from work that day I was able to contain my excitement right up until the moment she opened the car door. “We got a TV!” I remember yelling in complete joy while at the same time feeling a deep sense of guilt for ruining the secret I’d promised to keep. It is the way I have felt about television ever since. As a child it was simply a distraction, and as hard as it is to believe today, it also represented an advanced technology that had found its way into our home, leading us into the world of the future and material success. It took up a place in an old copper dry sink that sat in the living room of our house and gave me, as an only child, a kind of companion when my parents, both of whom worked, were away. My favorites were the really old timey cartoons in black and white from the 1930’s, The Little Rascals, I Love Lucy, and the Flintstones. There were plenty of other programs that had little or no effect on me, but many of the moral lessons I learned were taught to me through the shows I watched. My parents probably had no idea of the profound influence that television would have on a child, but back then it was something new, another appliance that was unfamiliar to them as a 3-D printers are to most Americans today, good simply because it was new. It was emerging as the replacement for radio, but it had not yet become ubiquitous. These days the trend appears to be heading the other way and every year more and more people turn away from the effects of what can be found in popular entertainment in today’s television environment.
In the first few weeks after my accident I wasn’t able to focus enough to read much or write more than a few sentences at a time so I spent countless hours watching YouTube videos. Eventually I started to look and see if I could find some favorites from my past, shows I had enjoyed in my childhood that might cheer me up with their nostalgia. After completing hundreds of hours of viewing I began to see things within the different programs I had never noticed before and to watch the slow evolution of American society in half a dozen iconic series from the late 1950’s to the present.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: 1955-1962
Duplicity and Sociopathy in a Time of Stability
Some of my fondest memories from childhood revolve around the weekends spent at my grandparents homes. I was fortunate to have both sets of grandparents living within a short drive of our home for my entire childhood. I may have spent as many weekends sleeping in the spare rooms of their homes than in my own and the one thing we always enjoyed doing was to watch their television in the evenings with a snack. It was always a big deal to find a place in a chair or on the sofa and sip root beer and eat pretzels while some program like Chiller Theater or Million Dollar Movie played on a 9 inch black and white screen. Inevitably during those visits we’d watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a series of short, noir-style pieces that revolve around crime, mystery or suspense. From the opening bar of it’s iconic introduction, Gounaud’s Funeral March of the Marionette, to the simple line drawing representing Mr. Hitchcock’s profile and his droll, dark, and humorous delivery of introduction the viewer is immediately drawn into a kind of conspiracy with the great director. His insulting barbs directed at “our sponsor” breaks the fourth wall and as he gives us the spare details of the upcoming installment, we actually feel like we’ve taken a seat in the inevitable jury box. Each of the episodes are by today’s standards formal and theatrical, especially the diction of the ever changing cast. The stentorian delivery as well as the stiff blocking make the stories seem self-conscious. This was not just because of the directorial vision of the program’s namesake, but rather a reflection of America at that time. In the years following the end of the Second World War there was an air of superiority that blew across the American landscape. We’d just defeated the enemy on not just one but two theaters of operation, we’d liberated two continents and we’d rebuilt an economy to levels never before imagined. There was a reason to think highly of ourselves and it was reflected in the way people carried themselves and how they spoke to one another, even if they were plotting a murder. While most of the series showed the seedy, if not well dressed underbelly of the world of blackmailers, kidnappers, hit and run drivers and hired hitmen, there was a common thread in each. In the end every indiscretion revealed, every guilt party brought to justice. These were not so much crime tales as they were morality plays. If at the beginning a spoiled nephew plots the demise of his wealthy aunt, you can bet the farm that even if he actually does her in, he will be found out. It was anxiety producing, and it was satisfying. You watched as if you were an invisible witness to the way the plot would unwind only to see the guilty party held to account. It also featured a stellar assortment of the up and coming starts of the next decade in their first roles as well as veteran performers from the forties and fifties at their career end best. Everyone wanted to be involved with Hitchcock, a phenomenon at the time, combined with his selection of top material, most of it by popular writers of published fiction, made it a consistently well produced program.
The Twilight Zone: 1959-1964
A New Morality: Victimhood and the Other
Rod Serling served as a paratrooper in the European theater during WWII. His experiences no doubt shaped his vision of humanity and his dogged persistence and grit in bringing his vision to the screen is the stuff of Hollywood legend. When he initially pitched the original Twilight Zone premise the studio head told him he liked what he saw, to come back when he had enough for an entire season. Serling walked out to the parking lot and retrieved a box full of scripts from the trunk of his car and dropped it on the exec’s desk. The rest is history. Most of the stories fall into the science fiction classification but the most effective ones had more to do with the moral failure of the human experience. His slant was always anti-establishment and he sided with the underdog in all of his tales. During the rising tide of a protracted Cold War, in the immediate aftermath of the red scare and it’s impact on the literary class, Serling tried to expose our weaknesses and weave some kind of revamped value system that always sided on the other as opposed to the in-group. The Monsters Have Come To Maple Street is a perfect example of this kind of sermonizing, that our inherent caution around those who are not part of our body politic is in fact a thinly disguised bigotry, and that America was not the shining city on a hill, but rather a cesspool of hatred and banal indifference to suffering that needed only a nudge to come into full bloom. Whatever it was that Serling experienced in the war stayed with him for the rest of his creative life and while the outcomes of his advocacy may not have been anything like he intended- he was always the voice of forbearance rather than revenge- that he meant well and sought to correct the injustices of his time is without doubt. Television was never welcoming to his vision but his impact on our cultural arc was profound. The Twilight Zone was everything television could have been had it not fallen in the trap of serving as a corrections officer on a prison planet.
Love American Style: 1969-1974
The Last Gasp of Romance and Chivalry
Love American Style came out of the Summer of Love, post-Woodstock vibe that suffused the zeitgeist of my youth. It was a weekly anthology series that featured between two and three short stories featuring a changing cast with additional ‘blackouts’, short vaudeville style bits that always bordered on the bawdy. It’s draw was some clever writing and a huge pool of popular actors in Hollywood to play the 5-15 minute sketches, featuring attractive actresses like Meredith MacCrae, Julie Newmar, and Tina Louise, top comics like Flip Wilson, Phyllis Diller, and Rich Little. What stands out in the viewing is the chaste feel of the storylines, plots that dealt with courtship, dating and more often than not, marriage. Flirty rather than racy, these episodes offered a unique insight into the cultural mores and prevalent memetic messages of the era, peppered with ridiculous premises- a secret admirer who mails himself to his crush played by Sonny and Cher- and over the top performances by an endless turnover of top talent. What was striking on the re-watching was the distinct and immutable distinctions between men and women in their behavior and demeanor. It reflected what today would be excoriated as ‘toxic masculinity’ in every episode without exception. Men acted like men and the women like women. There was a single appearance of what could be construed as a feminine man in a cameo role by comedian Avery Schreiber as a woman’s hairdresser, but that was it. The rest of the portrayals were based on the different phases of sexual dynamics, from dating and engagements through honeymooning couples and old married ones. The women were soft, not bitchy and competetive, and the men were aloof and worldly, not churlish and weak. And it worked! Not every episode was perfect, but there were some very solid pieces of writing and directing by some of the young up and comers who are now the most powerful and successful names in the business. There was within the light-hearted tales of courtship and passion a sad tone of a world that was heading in a much different direction for America. You could see it in the dress, the mini skirts that were both a style of the time, but also as an indicator of how women would be sexually commoditized in the future, not necessarily to their long term benefit. In the world of Love American Style there exists a sexual frisson between the players, never rising to the level of erotic, but that playful give and take that accompanies real romantic interest, an innocent energy made all the more powerful when the outcome is still in question. This program could never be brought back today, not because of the scripts being dated- they aren’t- but because the sexual dynamic simply doesn’t exist today. Pornography, feminism, the hook-up culture has despoiled that ground and made these kinds of tales irrelevant. I remember watching these episodes when I was still in grade school and they shaped my perception of what women were like, how dating would work, what married life was really about. I could see clearly in retrospect how this influence shaped my own preference in women, how the woman who became my wife looks like a composite of every attractive blond that appeared on that show and has the same feminine air and pleasing personality. In fact it was that more than anything else that both drove the plots and hooked the audience for so many years. The draw of watching women behave like women and men like men, but both of them at their best. The dialogues almost five decades later contain occasional snatches of the current slang; groovy, dames, hen party that date the writing, but the way the back and forth worked sounds perfectly natural, not contrived as most current television programs do today. It was, in a word, happy, not cynical and in that it perfectly defined it’s time. What it never seemed to show was the simmering anger and resentment that is the part of every modern storyline where women and men seek out each other for sexual companionship rather than to build a family and forge lifelong bonds.
Tales From the Crypt: 1989-1996
The Creep of Degeneracy and the Death Cult
The drift away from the earlier forms outlined by Alfred Hitchcock Presents turned into a mad rush towards corruption and degeneracy with the advent of Tales From the Crypt. Originally a series of comic books from the 1950’s, Tale From the Crypt is an anthology horror/crime series developed as the first original HBO series. Much like it’s predecessors above it featured a changing cast of popular actors and comedians, many of whom launched their careers on the series. The writers and directors kept the short thirty minute segments interesting and while most of the original material was geared towards teenage boys, the reboot was designed to attract an adult viewership, with graphic violence and frequent nudity. The stories, once morality plays along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where the guilty got their due by the end of each episode, morphed into a quasi-comic soft porn where someone always ended up dead in the end but you were never quite sure why. There was in the 1980’s a radical departure from the playful sensuality of the 1970’s that was far less alluring the more it sexualized the material. It marked the convergence of violence and sexuality as a form of entertainment, a trend that has only accelerated in the years since, pushing the envelope further and further along. What is striking compared to earlier series from previous decades was the sudden appearance of profanity as a staple part of the conversational lexicon. Words previously heard only in bedrooms and barfights were now commonplace and the scripts for this series were loaded with them, all in the service of rebranding a thirty year old brand as something ‘for adults’. The problem, or perhaps the underlying reality was that the educational level of the Average American in the late 80’s was far below that of previous generations and rather than to appeal to an adult intellect, Tales From the Crypt made a play for the prurient interests of adolescents pretending to be grown-ups. There may be far more popular series of that time that better described the era, but none of them did it with such ham-fisted urgency to see the very culture it served overturned. The origin of the genre in the era of Truman and Eisenhower, where the fear of nuclear annihilation hung in the air, served as a vent for those ever present fears that was manageable. Angry corpses rising from the dead was something you could get your head around, radioactive oblivion, not so much. And the irony of the collapsing Cold War mindset freeing us from one set of fears only to have them dredged back up as a kind of homage to the new fears that were to come cannot be overlooked. Tales From the Crypt, like it’s host the Crypt Keeper, showed us an American past in the present era that was already a dead man walking.
The Sopranos: 1999-2007
Rise of the Immigrant Narrative and Moral Turpitude
The Sopranos was a transformational series that came at just the right time for a Nation looking to justify it’s own obloquy. The story of a Mafia family in North Jersey is told as if it were simply another TV drama built on the intersecting relationships of a large cast, much like E.R. and Hill Street Blues in previous decades. The stark difference is not simply the fact that the protagonists are criminals, but that they are just like you and I. Their concerns are not that different than ours, grocery shopping and sending the kids to college, paying the bills and keeping up with the Joneses. It sets a tone where even though the characters might take a baseball bat to the little league coach or hurl a stripper off a bridge, they’re just doing their job trying to earn a living for their loved ones. Through this lens the show enables us to both be appalled by and drawn to the characters because they share our experience even if we may stop short of homicide. Coming in the last years of the Clinton Presidency, the rising tide of moral relevancy allowed us to inhabit the world of grifters and con-men even as we sink into our easy chairs at the end of a long day doing exactly that, driven to contribute to a corrupt government that is simply a Mafia family on steroids, complicit in every act of criminality they perform in our name. The arc of the chief protagonist, Tony Soprano, is one that begins with a crisis of conscience. Having grown up in a crime family and having taken it’s reins in a generational shake-up, he is both adept at his profession and at the same time deeply conflicted by what is required. He spends the majority of his time not in committing crimes or in spending time with his family, but rather in trying to find ways to silence the voices inside his own head that clamor for redemption. It is the mark of not only good writing, but in the understanding of the human spirit that readily demonstrates the laws of social physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and in every episode the plot moves inexorably towards that outcome.
The Sopranos also manages to make room in America for the emerging narrative that ‘we are a nation of immigrants’. It began in the late 1980’s in order to supplant the reality that we are in fact a nation of colonists that had the misfortune of an opportunistic political elite who deliberately opened the floodgates to insure a demographic displacement of the founding stock. The use of Italians was a brilliant stroke as most Americans were still resistant to the idea of turning America into Brazil at that time, but we all knew Italians who really were, ‘just like us’. Making sure to feature numerous storylines that showed the connection between the Soprano crew and the homeland in Italy they were able to level the disparity between what was clearly an Americanized family of Italian descent and the newly arriving hordes that had no intention of ever assimilating into the American mainstream as it was quietly being phased out like last years model. It made immigrants palatable within the context of our rapidly receding American experience and the promise of some kind of Diversitopia that never seemed to manifest itself no matter how much cheerleading was taking place. The Sopranos was a form of anesthesia for the American public, a primer in how the future of America would look, an endless series of cat and mouse games between warring clans tribes in order to suck the lifeblood from the body politic without scaring anyone. It’s use of linguistic oddities in the form of Italian pastries helped make us comfortable, I suppose, with the slow an inexorable replacement of English with an ever increasing presence of Spanish language. Much like the Twilight Zone did with making every minority a victim of some cruel and heartless White in order to force a conversation that most people weren’t interested in with regards to the era of civil rights, the Sopranos nudged us further into our own little reservation of perception. No matter what harm was caused by the immigrant classes, they weren’t alien to our culture and destructive to it’s foundation, but integral to it and something we’d all better get used to living with if we knew what was good for us.
Lord of the Flies and the Resurgence of Tribalism
If not the first, surely the best example of “reality TV” is embodied in the idea of taking 20 contestants to a remote location where they must not only survive, but compete in arduous and physically demanding tests of their resolve for 39 days as a castaway. It features a unique blend of beautiful and exotic settings, human suffering, beautifully constructed challenges, scantily clad young people and a fever pitch of anxiety. It satisfies on so many levels without the use of actors or elaborate budgets, by giving people a glimpse into the way firemen and sales executives, housewives and business owners- people just like us- behave in a competition for a million dollars. It clearly demonstrates the humanity of everyday Americans in the quest to earn a living as well as what they are capable of doing to make sure no one else does. It is one of the few television programs that stubbornly refuses to change much of anything at all and yet remain fresh season after season because of the dynamics of cutthroat competition in the chase for a life-altering payday. The fact remains that average people are fascinating and become even more so when you throw into a controlled atmosphere filled with deception, greed and near starvation. The details of the show have changed from time to time, but the premise has remained remarkably consistent. In order to survive through the first half of the game the contestant must rely on the strength of their tribe and the loyalty of it’s members to defeat their opponent, and in the second half on their ability to negotiate the social terrain marked by betrayals and deception in order to win as an atomized individual. It is, when looked at it from this perspective, the perfect coda for the American Experience of the last half century.
The producers of the show have gone to extreme lengths to craft a perception of the American cross-section; equal numbers of men and women, a variety of young and old, a smattering of black, Asian and Hispanic and gay players make up every game. While the broadcast intent always tries to obviate the differences between these various identities, in virtually every episode the game brings out the stark distinctions rather than obscure them. In the few instances where they chose to mix things up, such as breaking the original tribes into all male and all female, within two or three episodes the tribes had to be reformed in order to cover up the disparities in performance. Men, left to their own quickly built a fire, erected a shelter, and forage for food while the women sunbathed, engaged in endless spats and eventually crashed the male camp in order to beg for fire. Despite their best efforts to create a stressed demographic Utopia, the fault lines always appear. The dominant male strategy has always been that of physicality and providing while the female strategy has leaned heavily towards duplicity and manipulation. In the earlier phases of the game mutual efforts toward common goals build a solidarity but as the game progresses and tribe members are voted out the play shifts to one of pervasive paranoia and ever changing loyalties in order to survive to the next round. In it’s final stage of the game the very people who have voted off their tribe member must rely on them to serve as a jury and eventually choose which of the remaining two or three is deserving of the million dollar reward for being the most deceptive while doing so in the least offensive manner possible.
What can barely be noticed in a single episode becomes an undeniable reality over time. Yes, all human beings have the same basic needs and desires, and the hungers that drive us on the elemental level- to eat, to be sheltered from bad weather, to rely on one another and to give comfort to those in need underlines the entirety of the series, in fact serves as it’s central driver. Most of the contestants who make it to the final vote after 39 days of privation are gaunt and exhausted, their bodies dramatically thinner, their eyes sunken in their head from lack of sleep and perpetually filthy. But what rises to the surface after a hundred episodes is the flaws within us that set us apart. Apply enough stress, wear people down physically, push them to the limits of their endurance and the fangs come out. The show features some of the most memorable human meltdowns ever seen outside of a family experience it is hard to imagine. There are frequent injuries, some quite severe, mental breakdowns, and fair number of people who simply quit. There are alliances and alliances within alliances, double crosses and back-stabbings to rival a Scorcese flick, but there is something else that emerges clearly near the end of every game that throws a wrench in The Narrative that they work so hard to craft. And that is the single, overriding motivation of more than 90% of the contestants who endure the mental, physical and spiritual punishment that the game inflicts and that is family. While the game provides plenty of entertainment and excitement it is devoid of anything that satisfies our conscience. It nags at us to watch people who seem decent and kind descend into petty jealousies and calumny in order to make it to the next round, often forced to sacrifice loyalties and promises to those closest to them. It becomes very easy to render judgements from the other side of the screen, but still we hold out the hope that somehow underneath the grime and filth, both real and imagined, there is a humanity left inside. And in every episode, it manifests itself. Near the end of each season when there are eight competitors left, the producers fly in a family member for a brief re-union before being forced to compete for the privilege of spending an evening together over a meal with their loved ones. It proves again and again that there exists no greater bond, no more powerful force for human effort and sacrifice than family. The tearful reunions after a relatively brief span of time- 30 days- bring into stark contrast the things that we are forced to do, either to earn a living in a world that demands our complicit acceptance of falsehood as a way of life and the things that hold true value in our very core, the ones we love and share our most intimate moments with. There are probably plenty of things that go on in the production of this show that are less than they appear, scripted turns, modified outcomes, but there exists no actor or actress on Earth who could come close to delivering the kind of heartbreaking performances that take place when a wife or mother appears for the first time since the competition began and they run into each other’s arms.
Despite everything that I know television has done to undermine the Nation of my birth, for whatever reason there might be whether financial or something far more nefarious, it remains a tool. And like all tools it can be used either for great things or for unspeakable evil. The key is not in whether we watch it or do not- and every single person reading this is staring at a screen that is, if not “television” is in fact a form of that technic- but rather in our discernment in how we watch it. And what is it that we are looking for when we stare into the abyss? I was corrupted at a very early age by television and I have spent so much of my life living in the glow of that cold, blue eye that I no longer possess the perspective to observe it objectively. My personality and my desires have been shaped by it and the only thing I can do with that experience today is to try and make some sense of it, to pay attention to the metaphysics of the medium and to use it to explain in some fundamental way how it has not only transformed us, but how it has, unwittingly, captured forever the very world it sought to change. And if we look closely, perhaps we can see how it has failed in the most important metric of all, to turn us into something other than what we were meant to be regardless of it’s enticements or rewards.