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The Crisis Crisis

Even the sitcoms are overloaded with fear, exhaustion, and despair. It's enough to make you wish for a little good old-fashioned tragedy.

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People always say TV is unoriginal, but that can't be right--or how could it keep discovering new ways of poisoning your soul? You might think American mass culture is a changeless swamp of cynicism, creative exhaustion, and corporate-enforced synthetic cheer, but there are deep currents of fresh unpleasantness beneath the surface. This year's gimmick is particularly trying: all the new shows are about people who hate their lives. God knows I'm past expecting any show to lighten my spirits, but after sampling premiere week I just don't see how TV characters find the strength to endure. You can barely hear yourself think with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The keynote is set by Fox's new series Ally McBeal. In the first 15 minutes of the premiere episode our frail, tremulous heroine was buried under an avalanche of problems that would have broken the will of Margaret Thatcher. She was fired from her job at a law firm, she became embroiled in a squalid sexual harassment suit, she hired on impulsively at a new firm only to find that it already employed her newly married ex-boyfriend. Succeeding episodes amplified the desolation by giving her a lousy new relationship and touring by flashback her nerve-rackingly unfulfilled romantic past. Evidently the sole form of dramatic suspense will be tuning in to see if this is the episode where Ally finally crumbles.

Maybe I'm just a dreamer, but during the sexual harassment scenes--Ally fending off the disgusting advances of a porcine jerk invulnerable to retribution because of his seniority--I found myself wondering how this kind of situation would have been handled on a show with a more positive outlook on life. Xena: Warrior Princess, say. Xena has to deal with sexual harassment all the time. The highways of her hallucinatory version of ancient Greece are so thick with roving bands of slobbering thugs that I've started to think they're a roadside franchise, the proto-Hellenic equivalent of Stuckey's; there should be signs advertising Five Miles to the Next Thugs. And how does Xena handle these miscreants? The old-fashioned way: she stomps them into the ground and then sneers at them for being unmanly. It would make my TV viewing season to see Ally do that just once.

But Ally is a warrior princess compared to the rest of this year's crop of heroes. By the first half-hour break on ABC's Nothing Sacred, the hip young priest had had to contend with concatenating disasters involving abortion, priestly celibacy, declining church attendance, violence in the classroom, and the sanctity of the confessional. It was like a CNN Crossfire edition of the Book of Job. At the wrap-up, our hero roused himself to deliver a nervous sermon, the drift of which was that he wondered whether his ever-shakier faith in God was strong enough to support him in his travails. Of course this is just what you want to hear from the pulpit on Sunday morning; it might be preferable to overhear your doctor muttering about whether he should have gone to med school.

Still, that was nothing compared to the woe crushing the hero of the show immediately afterward, Cracker, about a shrink who tracks down serial killers. Five minutes in and he was revealed as a burnt-out case, with a bad job, bad marriage, stacks of unpaid bills--oh, and a serial killer targeting his family. The show's star, Robert Pastorelli, drifted through it all with the aplomb of a down-at-the-heels gambler having another lousy day at the track, but by the episode's end you wondered why he didn't chuck it all, move to Encino, and try hawking real estate.

And then there's The Visitor--a Fox show demonstrating that priests aren't the only ones this season with extraterrestrial connections who still can't buy themselves a break. The hero (I think I have this right) was kidnapped by aliens in the Bermuda Triangle 50 years ago and has now escaped to warn the human race of some imminent but unspecified global catastrophe. Naturally his every waking moment is an agony of dread, because the FBI and the military are moving heaven and earth to hunt him down and kill him. But that's not his main problem; he's more bummed about how his decades of imprisonment by aliens caused him to miss his son's childhood. At first I figured this was supposed to be some sort of compensatory fantasy for divorced dads--I mean, you can't blame him for skipping his son's birthday party--but I'm now convinced that the premise has a darker edge: it gives the hero an unappeasable sorrow. Even if he manages to evade his pursuers and save the whole world, he'll still never make up for being a bad father.

But my candidate for the downer of the year has to be Veronica's Closet, on NBC. Its bad vibes began even before the premiere. Its haughty lead-in, Seinfeld--a show that normally passes through the TV year as oblivious to its schedule mates as an aristocrat riding through the streets of prerevolutionary Paris--deigned to take notice of its dismal companion and was inspired to begin its own season with a brutal put-down. Seinfeld's first episode had a running gag about a hack comic who'd found the formula for instant success: all he had to do was go onstage right after Jerry, and he could coast on Jerry's laboriously cultivated goodwill. "He's nothing but a time-slot hit!" Seinfeld sneered--graciously preparing his vast audience for what was in store for them when Veronica's Closet started unspooling.

He needn't have bothered. The show would have been a nightmare anyway. The premise was more complicated and farfetched than that of The Visitor--Veronica is a world-famous retired supermodel who runs her own fabulously successful Victoria's Secret-style lingerie company--and it wasn't worth trying to follow anyway, since it served solely as a springboard for relentless jokes about how much our heroine loathed everything in her life: her job, her age, her weight, her looks, her philandering husband. Kirstie Alley deepened the gloom by playing the whole show in a daze of misery--in every shot she looked as though she'd just had a crying jag off camera. But the funereal pall didn't settle into place until the concluding scenes, when Veronica and her husband had dinner at a glam restaurant while a swarm of paparazzi pressed against the window; after Veronica left, she jumped into the back of a limo to flee the photographers--and as the limo sped away, the chauffeur started calling her "princess." Now there was cutting-edge entertainment; not even the Daily Show was doing Princess Di jokes.

Of course it was merely a ghastly coincidence; the show had to have been in the can months before. But it did set me wondering about how sour and irrelevant Veronica's Closet seemed on the subject of celebrity--particularly when compared with the ceaseless Princess Di coverage overflowing from every cable news channel. All those jokes about paparazzi, the ostentatious weariness with fame, the knowing allusions to photo shoots and supermodel neuroses played like a watery diet Coke version of the news about the royals.

I think that if the last ten million hours of Princess Di coverage prove anything, it's that the mass audience has a hunger for an experience it's not getting from the standard outlets of mass culture--it wants tragedy. And why not? Tragedy was once upon a time a popular form, before corporate-generated American pop took over the marketplace. People were deeply moved by Princess Di's death the way they used to be moved by The Duchess of Malfi or Lucia di Lammermoor. But tragedy is exactly what TV series are failing to provide. They're instead offering up every possible variety of resignation and defeat; even the sitcoms are overloaded with fear, whininess, exhaustion, and despair. Yet you still can't beat the old-time blast of cathartic energy at seeing goodness betrayed, the proud laid low, beauty destroyed before its time.

Consider what was on display in the one TV episode everybody in America tuned in to watch: ER live. ER has been trying to do tragedy, I think--at least it's been more consistently desolate about American urban life than anything on TV since The Honeymooners. You've got to give the show credit: it's succeeded in making Chicago out to be worse than it is--our city comes off as a perpetually wintry landscape of lonely apartments interspersed with wreckage, a battle zone in a meaningless war where the best you can hope for is triage. Even King Lear was more upbeat. And yet the show doesn't play as tragic, because that's just the fashionably bleak surface. What it's really about is the dazzle of high-tech kinetic energy. Fresh cases of maimed and ruined flesh come gliding through the doors every few moments, and our heroes have to respond in an ever-accelerating ecstasy of intricate skill. The gore and urban blight are there only for the sake of the greater rush.

The live episode was billed as a way of massively upping the adrenaline--which, given how the ER people get their thrills, merely meant taking a lot of technical risks. The episode was almost wholly about executing a lot of fantastically complicated camera moves and reciting a lot of doctor gibberish at breakneck speed without making any mistakes--and, big surprise, it all came off with contemptuous ease. Even the bits that seemed for one heart-stopping instant to be honest mistakes--a blown line, a near collision in the corridor, the video camera running out of batteries--turned out to be planned, like Michael Jordan pretending to bobble the ball before stuffing it into the basket. The only discordant effect in the entire episode was the hushed moment of seriousness at the end, when sweet Dr. Greene, reflecting on the coarsening of his worldview since the savage beating he took last season, said the ER used to be a "safe" place but it didn't feel that way anymore.

Safe? Hey pal, I've seen your show. I'd feel safer in a Mexican jail. What were all those shootings and stabbings and riots erupting in the waiting room over the past couple of seasons--mirages? Ah, but all those things happened to the guest stars. Greene's survival is guaranteed by contract, and he knows it. He moves through the show the way all series characters do--invulnerably. They can vanish overnight in a contract dispute, or they can depart after months of hype in a "very special episode," but the heights of direct engagement with the world--where tragedy might become possible--are barred by definition. They all follow implicitly the advice Lisa once offered Bart in the midst of a particularly convoluted crisis in the Simpson household: "Do what I do. Just ride it out. It'll all be back to normal next week."

Apparently, the only form of tragedy open to a series character is job burnout. Or so I gather from the only series on TV that's actively trying to be darker than ER: Millennium. This show cultivates an air of impending doom the way other shows use a laugh track, and its sole subject is job burnout elevated to a form of metaphysical horror.

The hero, one Frank Black--a name that seems intended to sound like a designer shade of paint--tracks down serial killers at the behest of a mysterious bunch calling itself the Millennium group. They're evidently the hippest insiders in the whole serial-killer-tracking scene; they sail into police stations and FBI offices with the commanding ease of celebrities cutting in line at fashionable clubs. I don't quite have a handle on what they're about, but evidently they believe that the proliferation of serial killers throughout America is a sign of the approaching apocalypse (rather than of laziness and incompetence among TV scriptwriters), and they have cast themselves as civilization's last line of defense.

But Frank, who's chased serial killers so long his face is a permanent mask of morbid exhaustion, doesn't quite buy into the Millennium group's weltanschauung. He has no faith that he's saving civilization; his home life is a fragile illusion of innocence that just barely prevents a tide of despair from crashing in on him. He goes on the hunt each week not because he wants to, but because he's jabbed into action by involuntary flashes of horrifying quasi-psychic insight--I haven't figured these out either, but I think he's like an electrician who can't help diagnosing a blown circuit board even when he's on vacation.

Millennium was easily the big downer of last season, but the competition is so stiff this time around that the producers had to come up with a new gimmick. Their solution is a bold one: they've pretended to lighten up. Not that Frank finds faith or even a reason to smile; he still drags himself through every episode like a midnight traveler at O'Hare who's just learned his luggage is lost. But now the Millennium group has started throwing him curveball assignments that poach on Mulder and Scully territory, out there in the trackless depths of the heartland where towns are terrorized by packs of rabid dogs and the local doctors go in for mind-control experiments. Meanwhile he's been surrounded by a new crew of comic-relief assistants--serial-killer buffs and computer nerds who specialize in dreary pop-cult esoterica (in one particularly imponderable touch, they reprogrammed his computer so he has to use the password "Soylent Green is people").

The effect is bloodcurdling; a man who's clinging to his trade as a last refuge against suicide is now being pestered by goofball slacker harpies who are into the apocalypse for cheap laughs. You scarcely need the serial killers. The series plays like the opening round in a final global showdown: exhausted professionalism versus the massed imps of cultural insincerity. I'll give the show this much--the showdown really does seem like a prospect worth dreading. But then, judging by the rest of the new TV season, that millennium has already arrived.

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

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