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On TV: The Deconstruction of America

Television is now going in for advanced critical theory the way it used to go for bloodshed and T&A.



You probably haven't noticed, but for the last month TV has been showing you its best stuff. TV stations use their ratings in May (the "May sweeps") as the baseline for setting their commercial rates, so they have traditionally loaded these few crucial, arbitrarily chosen weeks with their most glamorous product. In past years, this has meant an orgy of sleazy exploitation--night after night of psycho killers, kinky sex, true-life crime sprees, lurid diseases, wacky terrorist attacks, and that perennial favorite, ordinary citizens fighting back. TV at its finest, in other words. But this May, things are unnervingly quiet. No kinky sex--no sex at all, outside of the routine silicone fests on cable. No excessive violence--just the few curse words permitted on NYPD Blue. No fun of any kind. Evidently the pagan days of the Reagan and Bush years are gone. And in their place . . . well, I don't want to be an alarmist, but I believe we are beginning to see the effects of Clinton's cultural agenda for America, and I'm worried.

Consider The Stand, ABC's mega-blockbuster May-sweeps monster. It was a snooze. ABC obviously wanted Stephen King for his marquee value but didn't want to spend any money on the show itself. So what we got was eight hours of no-name actors reciting almost word for word the dullest scenes from King's novel (King, who also wrote the screenplay, showed a touching reverence for his source). Meanwhile the big scenes from the book, the lunatic moments of horrible grandeur as America succumbed to the plague and whole cities overflowed with corpses--the scenes that kept the reader plowing on toward page 1,000--were cheaped out, scaled back, or dropped altogether. The result was kind of sad: a low-budget apocalypse. There were so few bodies lying around that I began to wonder if I had missed an earlier miniseries in which a different bug had already depopulated America before this one got its big break.

The only really disturbing moment in the whole eight hours happened within the first 30 seconds. It was a title card bearing the famous T.S. Eliot line "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." A whimper? I asked myself with sudden foreboding. The whole world dies of a plague, and that isn't a bang? Just how jaded does ABC think we are? And yet it turned out to be the simple truth. It was one of those ubiquitous "viewer discretion" advisories, except this time we were being warned there wouldn't be enough violence. ABC was telling us up front that their May showpiece wasn't worth watching. Now that's frightening.

It's also typical. NBC's Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story was, on the face of it, even duller than The Stand. It wasn't gossipy; it wasn't lurid; it was almost stylish. Its general approach was borrowed not from the standard sleazebag "inspired by the true story" movies NBC used to show, but from HBO's classy award-winning satire (or whatever it was) The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. In fact the imitation was way too close because, just like its source, it was omnidirectionally mocking without actually being funny. It took a few swipes at Tonya, a couple more at Jeff, and even (being fearlessly satirical and all) one or two at Nancy. But you could tell its heart wasn't in it. Its real need, it gradually revealed, was to look inward and explore its own troubled soul.

The "inside story" we were promised turned out not to be the inside story of the skating scandal, of which there evidently was no inside, but of the making of the movie. The narrator wasn't one of the characters we'd grown to know and love from the tabloid shows but a fictional version of the writer hired to turn the whole mess into a screenplay. He shared with us his concerns and doubts. He wondered what it all meant about our country today. He confessed, in a moment of high drama, that he couldn't make up his mind about the key question--did Tonya know?--thus setting himself apart from everybody else in America (he would have been the one perfect juror if the case had ever come to trial). Then he took us behind the scenes at NBC, carefully identified, as they debated how to make the movie as quickly and luridly as possible. Here the movie reached an ecstatic climax of brutal satire by showing up the corrupt, exploitative motives of everybody involved in making the movie we were watching.

Just like The Stand, the show apologized for its own failed and pointless existence and blamed us if we didn't change the channel. If it didn't apologize up front, that was, after all, because it was being satirical. But it and we knew we shouldn't have been watching in the first place.

My last exhibit is Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, also on NBC. You will perhaps recall that several years ago Joan Rivers's husband committed suicide; now, as a May-sweeps highlight, Joan and her daughter Melissa, starring as themselves, reenacted their own private story of grief and recovery. It's hard to describe just how excruciating this was--but what matters is that it was excruciating in the new, sinister 90s way. It was exactly like The Stand, grotesque and dull at the same time. But it was also exactly like Tonya and Nancy, claiming to give the inside story of the title characters when in fact it resolutely respected their privacy. We weren't told why the unfortunate Edgar committed suicide, except that Joan had at one point told him for some unstated reason that "he couldn't come home"; we learned nothing about what he was like when he was alive except that he was "very English." Neither his wife nor his daughter, it proved, really had much to say about him. They did concede that he seemed kind of depressed toward the end--but we probably would have worked that out on our own. As for themselves, they revealed that they were whiny, selfish, spoiled rotten, and helpless in a crisis. And there again I had more or less assumed as much going in.

As with The Stand, the high moment of drama occurred right at the beginning, when the doomed man--nimbly played by a pair of hands--sealed up in envelopes the cassette tapes containing his suicide messages to his wife and daughter. Now there was suspense: Were they the real tapes? (We were sophisticated enough to know they weren't the real hands.) Were we going to hear them? Joan refused to play hers on camera--she said she was "too tired." But Melissa did pop in her tape, press play, and . . . scene over. The tapes were never referred to again. Evidently their contents were none of our business.

But wasn't the whole movie none of our business? Of course: that's exactly the point. We weren't supposed to be watching.

Let's put all this together. No more fun during May sweeps--the networks have listened to Clinton and his evil henchperson Janet Reno and have cleaned up their act. Instead, we're getting horror movies that aren't horrifying, inside stories that are empty inside, self-canceling irony, circular and sourceless self-reference, shows that exclude us from their own existence. In a word--and it's an ugly, hateful word, but it must be said--


American television is now going in for advanced critical theory the way it used to go in for bloodshed and T & A. The networks are making TV shows that take themselves apart before our eyes so we can inspect the hopelessly contradictory and compromised motives for their creation; they are destroying their own authority as omnipotent entertainment outlets by refusing our viewing of their shows and leaving only the free play of destabilized, meaningless signs--an endless series of promos for shows you aren't supposed to watch. What were the biggest draws they've had to offer this month? "All new" episodes of shows like Seinfeld and NYPD Blue--it's evidently an event when a first-run series delivers an episode we haven't already seen so many times the tape is worn smooth. Or else the "series finales" of L.A. Law and Star Trek: The Next Generation--as though it's somehow thrilling to watch a show melt away into the void of reruns. Network executives apparently think, even during their most vital ratings period, that what really thrill us these days are the absent text, the erased sign, the vanished authority of the father.

How could it have happened? I have a theory. It may not be true (I pray it's not true), but it is keeping me up nights, so I'll pass it along in hopes it will sound the alarm.

During the last presidential campaign, a couple of Republican congressmen spent a lot of time on C-SPAN insinuating that there was something odd, even sinister, about Bill Clinton's student days in Europe. You may recall that George Bush dropped similarly ominous hints one night on Larry King, shortly before the end. Their idea, evidently put forward quite seriously (except for Bush, who was never serious about anything), was that Clinton might be some kind of KGB mole, brainwashed a la The Manchurian Candidate, sent back programmed to get elected President and then destroy the country.

We all laughed, of course. But maybe they were right. Maybe Clinton was indeed captured and reprogrammed by agents of a foreign power. But it wasn't the Russians. It was the French.

What we have to imagine, I think, is a room in the basement of the Sorbonne--an unnumbered room, spoken of in whispers by the inmates. There, 25 years ago, a young obnoxious American pretending to be some kind of hippie sat terrified under a bright light. The room was filled with opium-scented smoke, and he was trying desperately not to inhale. In the shadows, as in alien-abduction stories, sat the hooded forms of Baudrillard and Deleuze and Foucault. They were murmuring phrases like "phallocentrism" and "destabilized play of the signifier." And murmuring into the young man's ear was the ringleader: Jacques Derrida. "One day, mon ami, you will be President," he purrs. "On that day you will precisely act. America must be deconstructed."

And the young man, unable to hold out any longer, takes a slow, shuddering breath.

Fanciful, you say? Not at all. Consider this true, unfanciful fact: Clinton has been writing fan letters to TV shows. And which ones did he choose? I give you my word: Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Commish. Now, at first I assumed that this was simply more evidence of Clinton's increasing instability, what with Whitewater and Hillary and everything about the presidency turning out to be so darn hard. The most striking thing about O'Brien and Michael Chiklis, who plays the Commish, is how ill at ease they are about starring in their own shows. But now I'm beginning to wonder. Doesn't a fondness for those shows seem awfully . . . French? Don't they feel like abstract, tenth-generation xeroxes of shows that once had some kind of American content--exactly the way Charlton Heston and Jerry Lewis are like hyperstylized satires on American themes?

Put it this way: Suppose Clinton had been kidnapped by the Russians. What shows would he like? Obviously, Baywatch and Crossfire. Or what if it had been a flying saucer? The X-Files, of course, and Chicagoland Television News (I am morally certain that everyone on that channel is an alien). But Late Night and The Commish--if Jacques Derrida were snowbound in a Holiday Inn somewhere, watching TV for a month, those are precisely the shows he'd zero in on as saying the most about this evil, charming, mysterious land, America.

If I'm right, then what do we have to look forward to on our TV sets? What will be deconstruction's final form?

I think we got a glimpse during the current high-water mark of American culture: Madonna's appearance on Letterman. I don't have to summarize it, I trust--it appears to be the only show this year that anybody actually watched. But nobody seems to have gotten the point. Madonna was not out to shock us that time: she was genuinely angry. She had only agreed to come on the show because she was angry. Her plan was to get onstage, refuse to do any of the prepared bits, and humiliate Dave. It didn't work because she has no sense of humor, and because Dave is oddly difficult to humiliate (the audience sided with him, since he seemed authentically surprised and hurt by her behavior). The real question is: why was she so angry?

Because Dave had been making all those jokes about her sex life, and her sex life is none of our business.

You would think otherwise--but that's because you're part of the old, pre-Clinton, undeconstructed way of thinking. Madonna wants a postmodern notoriety: she is ridding it of the old, traditional requirement that people talk about how much they disapprove of you. The new, deconstructed notoriety does not require people to talk about you. Notoriety to Madonna is something like money, something you exercise absolute control over, a quantifiable property you are entitled to create and enjoy in private.

Nor is she the only one: just think, for as long as you can bear to, about Roseanne. Consider that you know everything about her tattoos, her liposuction, and her failed marriage--even if you have never watched her show, and even though she issues press releases asking that everyone leave her alone. Clearly she is engaged in the great work of deconstructing the concept of fame. I can give you a sense of how dangerous her project is, and how far she's gotten with it: at this very moment we are intruding on her privacy. We are causing her pain simply by knowing how famous she is.

The person who best defined the brave new world ahead is, of all people, Vicki Lawrence. During a big fight she was having with her producers over creative control of her talk show, she gave an angry interview to the E! channel in which she described (with a big smile, so you could tell just how steamed she was) the reputation that she and her staff had worked so hard to cultivate in Hollywood, a reputation her soulless producers couldn't possibly sustain without her. And what was this reputation? That her show was--and here I'm quoting her exactly--"celebrity-friendly."

I hope this frightens you as much as it does me: it means that America isn't celebrity-friendly enough. We may look back on this May's sweeps as a clear indication from our pop-culture President and all his deconstructed celebrity friends of the future they want: a day when they can star in movies about themselves in which they triumph over undisclosed obstacles; when the scandals are still steamy but aren't about anything and nobody asks prying questions; when America has been depopulated of everybody except celebrities that nobody has heard of. Great times ahead, for celebrities--but you and I are on our way out.

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

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