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On TV: Automatic Pilot

As you watch this also-ran you realize that all the TV small towns you've ever seen are blurring into the same surreal fairy-tale world.

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I have two theories about the way TV shows are made. I also have two theories about the way baby food is made. They're the same two theories. In the first theory, the manufacturers start with wholesome and natural ingredients, which they proceed to blast, bleach, irradiate, colorize, and strain until the result is bland, featureless ooze. In the second theory, they do much the same thing with the same result, but they start with toxic waste.

The first theory is more romantic, at least as far as TV goes--I don't suppose anything about baby food is romantic. It suggests that there really are original talents at work in TV, whose creative spirit is ruthlessly stomped on by the hordes of zombies who infest the networks. I used to believe this theory. After all, it's what the talents themselves always said when excusing the dreadfulness of their shows. But you'd figure that sooner or later some of their original wholesome naturalness might contaminate the system and get on the air maybe by accident, and I'm still waiting for that to happen. So I've now come around to the second theory. There are no great works of TV art that have been turned, by the committee system, into bad TV shows; instead, all TV shows begin life as poisonous dreck, but they have been processed by the networks to the point where by the time they're broadcast they're almost innocuous.

If you don't believe me, the best way to test this theory is to watch the pilot episode of a series. It's always a shock, especially if it's a show that lasted for years, to see how jumbled and awkward the first episode invariably was--and how slavishly it was imitating some other successful show. This is what's so fascinating: all the elements that ultimately would be homogenized into paste are still raw and available for your inspection.

You might have supposed, for instance, that the old classic Barney Miller was born out of an acute case of agoraphobia. It confined itself obsessively to that dingy police squad room for years at a time. But the pilot, I once was startled to discover, was for a standard homebound sitcom about a cop's family life. Barney's scenes in the squad room were nothing more than local color; but as often happens during long runs, the local color took on a life of its own and swallowed up the rest of the show. Another big surprise was the pilot for Murphy Brown: not only was the script nothing more than a bad update of the Mary Tyler Moore Show (with a kitschy veneer of feminist consciousness), but I couldn't begin to measure the depth of Candice Bergen's stage fright. She recited every line as though praying for the camera to be turned off so she could bolt. After years of heavy-duty industrial processing, she has gotten better, or at least less tense--but the pilot did explain why, even now, everyone else on the set acts a little dazed by her.

But the most interesting pilots are for series that don't get on the air. It might be news to you that there are any--that there's any selection process at all. But the networks are constantly commissioning scripts for new series, and they shoot far more pilots than they ever schedule. Many of the also-rans do get shown on the air once, to fill holes in the program grid when the supply of regular product is running low. We are right now in prime unsold-pilot season, what with everything being in reruns except for Models Inc. (which only feels like it's a rerun) and The People vs. O.J. (which is temporarily on hiatus). Here and there throughout the grid, in between the evidentiary hearings, unsold pilots have been popping up for the last few weeks on all the networks. I recommend watching one, no matter what it is. It'll be terrible--I guarantee that--but it'll tell you more about how TV works than a year's worth of Nick at Night.

You have to look sharp to find an unsold pilot, though, because they're never hyped, and they look just like regular shows--with their own little title sequence and theme music and everything. The giveaways are: you've never heard of it; the star is somebody you dimly remember being a costar somewhere else; the plot is a senseless garble of five other series already on the air; and the listing in TV Guide ends with the sinister phrase, "Not on the network's announced fall schedule." That means: a turkey.

I came across one a few weeks ago on Fox. It was called Locals: a sitcom starring John Ratzenberger, who used to be Cliff the mailman on Cheers. It was everything an unsold pilot ought to be: that is, it was so bad it was unearthly. Nothing about it made any sense; all the jokes were bizarre and none of them were funny; the characters didn't resemble any known form of human life. And yet everything about it was familiar. It had been recycled wholly out of by-products from other TV shows. It was so toxic only because it hadn't been processed enough, and the stench of industrial effluvia rose off the screen.

The setting was a small town described as "the rake capital of the world." Everybody in the town used lawn rakes as a medium of exchange--as currency, as engagement presents, as dueling weapons. I missed the rationale for this: whether there was a rake factory nearby, or this was some demographic fluke, or whether the aliens who made the show had been palling around with David Lynch for too long. Most likely, this was one of those typical American towns that are continually beset by surreal anomalies. It was a wacky place where the monks of the local monastery (and most small towns do have a local monastery) didn't make wine but instead raised attack dogs, which they were unable to control because they'd taken a vow of silence.

Anyway, Ratzenberger played the local barber, a la Floyd from Mayberry. He was also the narrator--which, given Ratzenberger's perpetual air of eerie joviality, was like watching the stage manager from Our Town overdosing on Halcion. The pilot's story was a measure of how much comic invention had really gone into the show: A stranger arrives in town. I'm pretty sure he was a stranger, and not a mirage or a hologram or something. But get this: he was a typical New York City cabdriver! (Actually not so typical, since he was from Brooklyn rather than the Tunisian outback.) You can just imagine the comical reactions he had to the townspeople!

I'll spare you what followed--it was so bleak the producers should have replaced the laugh track with the wails and groans of damned souls. The pit of hell finally yawned in the concluding moments, when the script (sensing, perhaps, that the executive screening room at Fox had emptied out) underwent a seizure of nihilistic self-loathing. Behind the credits, the cabdriver and somebody else attacked each other like rabid wolves, while the other characters, trapped within the dwindling reality of the town, became aware of the existence of the camera and desperately tried to horn in on the barber's last soliloquy.

You will not be surprised to hear that Locals is not on Fox's announced fall schedule. I'm glad I saw it, though, because it did convince me of one great truth: TV series are much harder to make than I'd ever dreamed. I'm now willing to look more charitably on the most balefully meaningless sitcoms on TV: shows like Growing Pains or The Facts of Life--the sitcoms that make you feel that some kind of evil telepathic force is wiping your mind as clean as a suburban kitchen floor. They clearly represent an enormously high degree of craftsmanship, which should be respected. After all, the people responsible for Locals were professional writers and producers, and it's not as though John Ratzenberger has no talent. And yet they took all the materials for a TV show and contrived a nightmare instead.

How did they go so wrong? Consider their starting point: that eternal TV theme, the cynical New Yorker confronted by small town American goodness. It seems to have struck the writers this kind of show is really about something else. Think of Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks and Newhart; in fact go all the way back to Green Acres. In each case, the small town turns out to be a goofy, dreamlike realm, a kind of parallel world designed by Norman Rockwell and Andre Breton. Flying saucers and monsters wander around loose in Twin Peaks; Napoleon and Franz Kafka visit Cicely, Alaska; the backwoodsmen of Newhart's Vermont all have the same name and speak with inexplicable Southern accents; the universe of Green Acres is as squashy as a Dali watch. In this world, the tough-guy cynicism of New York comes to symbolize something closer to Cartesian rationalism. The exiled New Yorker stops arguing the merits of "Fresh Air!" versus "Times Square!" and instead spends every episode trying to prove to the non-Euclidean townspeople that effect really does follow cause and the world isn't a solipsistic illusion.

Locals tried to follow in this tradition of surrealist whimsy. But what the producers ignored was that every one of those shows, however phantasmal it shortly became, was, in its pilot episode, dully and painfully naturalistic. An intricate chain of highly circumstantial pretexts led Dr. Fleischman to Alaska, all of which the Northern Exposure pilot patiently went over several times--I wasn't paying any attention so I don't remember what they were, but other people in the audience presumably were reassured. Even Green Acres actually tried to pretend for a few episodes that it was about a New York lawyer moving out to a run-down farm, rather than an interminable guerrilla war between Alice and Wonderland. But what was the cabbie doing there in Locals? Why, because the town waitress had impulsively married the first man she met in New York--an explanation only plausible if she'd been cursed by a witch.

Almost every successful TV show is built around this same pattern: a halfway plausible premise that only gradually falls away to reveal a fairy-tale form underneath. Some shows do it so well you don't even notice how they've drifted into dreamland. Nothing supernatural happened on Cheers, for instance--except that, as the weeks and the years went by, nobody at the bar ever got belligerently drunk, or sick, or maudlin; nobody once had to call the cops to break up a fight; in fact, nobody was as much as tipsy by closing time. So what kind of booze did they serve there, and why did anyone ever order another round? The truth was, Cheers wasn't a bar at all--it was another outpost of Fantasy Island, the magic place where everybody knows your name.

When a show has to introduce its real premise so patiently and insinuatingly as all that, then obviously the last thing Locals should have done is leap headlong into weirdness. It should have spent half a season pretending to be a 90s version of Mayberry R.F.D. before even mentioning those rakes and that monastery. It should have taken a lesson from the strangest fairy tale on the schedule: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Here is a show with a premise so fantastic it makes Locals look like socialist realism: that a 19th-century female doctor, somehow converted to New Age holistic medicine (by a passing time traveler, no doubt), could practice her occult doctrines on the inhabitants of a frontier town and not get burned as a witch for her pains. Yet it feels so grounded in tradition it's almost plausible. Even if you think Jane Seymour as Dr. Quinn is an apparition spontaneously generated by People magazine, you catch yourself thinking that surely the town is--well, not realistic, exactly, but maybe America past did contain squeaky-clean villages like this one, where the locals were all soft-spoken and polite and willing to listen to reason when it was explained to them very slowly. And, in a way, it's true--the town isn't out of the real past, but the televised past. It's the town we've seen all our lives on Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.

Dr. Quinn discreetly situates itself in this old west Brigadoon--a phantom place that somehow persisted through the decades when no one made western shows anymore, patiently waiting and available for anyone who would want to use it again. It has survived because it's got nothing to do with the past: it's designed to be a little allegory of the present, as open to holistic medicine as it used to be to debates about civil rights. It's America in its schematic form: a civics-class outline of a community, where archetypal figures--doctor, mayor, sheriff, judge--can enact uplifting dramas about current issues. The western gear is really just for show, so the town doesn't appear to age. You could do without: in fact Picket Fences is set in the exact same town, only in modern dress.

The odd thing--in fact, it's downright sinister--is that in all other respects Rome, Wisconsin, in Picket Fences is located in the same surrealist domain as Cicely, Alaska, and Hooterville, Twilight Zone. The closer you look at them, the more TV small towns blur into each other; it's as though in some ultimate Platonic TV version of reality, Gunsmoke and Twin Peaks were the same show. That's a scary prospect to contemplate: maybe TV isn't getting more murkily diverse as the channels continue to multiply; maybe the secret, cumulative effect of the industrial processing is to make all TV shows converge on one situation. After all, every family sitcom seems to be about the same blandly mean-spirited family; every cop show is about the same infallible, angelic cop--what if the entire programming schedule were gradually contracting to one show about a weird and timeless town in fairyland, with characters and plots recycled from a thousand other series and populated by actors we know exclusively from reruns?

The show is Locals, in other words. It seemed so peculiar only because it was ahead of its time. Maybe it's not on the announced schedule, but it's our one true destination.

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

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