The Mean Season | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Mean Season

This fall it's out with the good guys as heroes and in with eerie thugs.

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Premiere month is the most depressing part of the TV year. The new shows are inevitably such a dismal flock of malformed freaks, of mutants and abominations blinking feebly in the brief glare of public exposure before they meet their merciful doom, that I start to feel like a health inspector on the island of Doctor Moreau. But this current crop worries me more than usual. I'm starting to get the feeling that instead of a brief parade of weirdness before the tedium sets back in again, what we've gotten from TV this past month is only a foretaste of a deeper, blacker mood of horror and contempt.

I can remember when TV producers used to be abashed about how unoriginal they were. Now they're exuberant about it. Before now, I thought that for sheer haplessness, no show would ever top the syndicated series The Untouchables--where the actor who took over the Sean Connery role of the Irish cop obediently imitated Connery's Scottish accent. But I have a new winner: Space: Above & Beyond. It's not enough that the show is nothing more than a dim Xerox of one of the worst sci-fi shows ever made, Battlestar Galactica. The producers, faced with the apparently insurmountable creative challenge of doing a sequence that wasn't in their source--the space cadets going through basic training--found a solution that can only be described as brazen: they restaged the basic training sequences in Full Metal Jacket. And I don't mean they lifted a few ideas. They hired the same actor to play the drill instructor, dressed him in the exact same uniform, and had him bellow his way through the exact same psychotic tirades--or rather, PG-rated paraphrases of them (though they unaccountably missed his best insult: "You're so ugly you could be a masterpiece of modern art!"). It was almost exhilarating: lack of imagination defiantly put forward as being better than imagination itself.

Meanwhile, the producers of The Monroes (the pilot of which ABC was sadistic enough to show twice during premiere week) began their show with a bloodcurdling gesture of contempt: a running gag about how ancient and meaningless their Dynasty/Kennedy soap sludge was going to be. The joke was as follows: nobody could tell whether the decrepit family dog was or wasn't dead yet. You didn't have to be Roland Barthes to decode the self-reference. The script was so redolent of the tomb, the actors virtually had dust coming out of their mouths. But what worried me was the feeling that it might be an inside reference to a broader issue: the upcoming TV season. Maybe we won't be able to tell whether any of the dogs are dead.

It's insulting on the face of it how many of last season's worst shows have been renewed--I mean, Hope & Gloria is back, and it remains the only show I've ever seen where the actors are plainly having a worse time than the audience (Cynthia Stevenson's perky routine has gotten so edgy, I swear she's about to go after somebody with a knife). But if NBC felt obliged to renew SeaQuest DSV, why bring it back with yet another new premise? It's as though NBC can't be bothered to cancel it, but they are willing to go out of their way to sneer at those few lingering viewers (and I'm sure they must exist) who've been sticking with it through its hard times. Offhandedly, as though announcing a revision of the duty roster, the season premiere informed the audience that another damn undersea disaster, or some kind of unfortunate summer vacation on an alien planet, had carried off yet more of the original cast and whatever was left of the original idea. I can't say I watched the show often enough to tell who was missing; but I was alarmed to see that all the survivors were just as indifferent to the news as I was. The vampire cop on Forever Knight was more broken up when his dumb cluck of a partner was written out in a plane crash (it was a brutal summer for supporting players). I know the future according to SeaQuest has always been pretty gray; but is it really going to be wholly indifferent to human emotions?

Evidently so, judging by a strange change in the SeaQuest's captaincy. This is part of the season's most ominous new trend. Nice guys are out as heroes; in are eerie thugs. The star of ABC's inexplicably renewed The Marshal, for instance, is Jeff Fahey, an actor who's played so many occult villains in direct-to-cable movies that his face seems frozen in a mask of supernatural dread (you get the feeling on his show that he's just transferred in from The X-Files and is inspecting the crime scenes for werewolf spoor). So, on SeaQuest, that hammy old sweetheart Roy Scheider has been replaced; the new hero is the ineffably spooky Michael Ironside, still indelible as the psychotic telepath in Scanners. Ironside immediately made it plain he wasn't going to be any Picard-ish wimp who took part in those saccharine Next Generation parables that SeaQuest used to do so badly. He was so stern and creepy, in fact, that you could tell he was gearing up to provide a new role model for the 90s--Captain Ahab.

TV heroines haven't caught up yet. The new crowd is as bland as ever. But the foreshadowings are thickening here, too: the new shows--Caroline in the City, The Bonnie Hunt Show, Can't Hurry Love--all display an unhealthy contempt for the nice-girl heroine's virtue, while continually leering over the escapades of her neighbor/best friend/evil twin. It's the same dynamic in every show: the heroine is conservative, prim, and lonely; her doppelganger is an omni-sexual orgiast. On Can't Hurry Love, when heroine Nancy McKeon has to rouse neighbor Mariska Hargitay in the middle of the night, Hargitay responds as follows: "Anybody who wakes me up at this hour should either give me a great meal or some great sex--now which is it going to be?" I admit I was relieved when McKeon headed for the kitchen. God only knows what her answer will be if they get desperate for ratings.

For the nice girl at her bleakest, you can't do better than Central Park West. It's a tough show to sit through, as we all know by now; every time I tried, I found myself clicking over to see what was up on the season premieres of Darren Star's older shows, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210, which Fox had unsportingly programmed against this loser. I did get a nice reward for playing hooky, by the way--the only consoling minutes of TV I've had this entire season: a sinister but studly doctor on Melrose Place patiently explaining to that raging berserker Kimberly how to pretend to be insane during an upcoming hearing. It was the last thing I would have bothered to teach her, but maybe she'd been cured during the commercial break and was now faced with the typical Melrose Place metaphysical crisis of pretending to be what she had been for real only moments ago. Not since Sartre have I encountered such an unrelenting obsession with the imponderables of being and seeming: it's a comfort to know there's still one show taking the high ground.

Anyway, the deal on Central Park West is that the bland, straight heroine Mariel Hemingway arrives from Seattle to take over the editorship of a wildly glitzy New York magazine. This premise is sheerest science fiction, of course--about on the same order of probability as Jed Clampett making the A list in Beverly Hills. But just when I was settling in to enjoy the fantasy, Hemingway had to spoil it by announcing that her mandate as editor was to "cut costs." Now, no heroine in the history of television has ever taken a job in order to be practical. She does it in order to be part of a warm and caring surrogate family of lovable eccentrics. I thought even Darren Star knew that much--hasn't he ever seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

Granted, the workplace atmosphere on Central Park West turned out to be as poisonous as the last days of the Manchu dynasty--so Hemingway was probably just trying to stay grounded. But that's exactly where Central Park West goes irrevocably wrong for me: its assumption that anybody would put up with so much nastiness just for the sake of the glamour. Glamour is no longer a positive value in America. Once Donald and Ivana started doing Pizza Hut commercials, the dream was over. Darren should have understood his own previous hits: the success of Melrose Place proves that Americans are perfectly able now to transpose the weirdest old melodramas and fairy tales about the aristocracy down the social scale onto the lives of a bunch of boring middle-class civilians. So on Central Park West when Hemingway endures yet another chic party where the glam guests are all snarling and clawing and leaping for her throat like rabid weasels, you can't help wondering why she bothers. If we can see what worthless scum they are, then why doesn't she wise up, hop on a down elevator, and head straight to that Central Park coffeehouse where the Friends are palling around?

I'm afraid the reason is that TV can't come up with any positive values for its melodramas any longer. Get rid of niceness and glamour, and what's left to set against the unrelenting villainy of a Manhattan party? I can only come up with one old-fashioned TV virtue still left: macho self-righteousness. I have to say, I'd be willing to take it; I keep idly wishing somebody would ship Hunter up to one of those Central Park West penthouses and let him grunt contemptuously at all the trendies. But Hunter is long gone; and judging from ABC's big-deal Steven Bochco show Murder One, even self-righteousness is on its way out.

The idea in Murder One is to follow a single murder mystery through the course of a year, and reveal the shocking jury verdict in the season finale--just like the O.J. case, except with an all-white cast. (Mainstream TV isn't quite ready yet for anyone as avant-garde as Johnnie Cochran.) The mystery itself, as laid out over the first few episodes, isn't particularly interesting: it's essentially the Twin Peaks story--murdered good girl with kinky secret life--and since Murder One is set in LA, you can't buy that anybody would be all that shocked. So far only one thing about the show is interesting: it's already obvious that, just like with Cochran and O.J., the lawyer hero is bound in the end to win an acquittal for a guilty client.

There's been a lot of forewarning: in the pilot the hero gives a passionate defense of the presumption of innocence--the drift being that the actual guilt of the accused is irrelevant, but believing in the fiction of innocence makes us better people. In the two episodes that followed, the hero's associates won favorable verdicts for clients who may not have deserved them, and when they expressed misgivings, the hero turned on them with a snarling soliloquy about how, and I quote, "Remorse is contemptible in a lawyer." You do everything you can to win for your client, and you never stop to ask yourself whether he's getting justice--that's not your business.

This is what's new and alarming about Murder One: if a lawyer on any TV show ten years ago had made that speech, you would have instantly known he was the villain. And Murder One does everything possible to make you think the hero is the villain. Otherwise why cast Daniel Benzali in the role? He's the eeriest thug I've ever seen: he looks like a hobbit gone over to the dark side and talks at all times in a chilling murmur, as though he's explaining his master plot just before he flips the switch and dumps James Bond into the piranha tank. Throughout the pilot I was somehow hoping against hope that a traditional, morally impregnable hero would turn up just to tell Benzali off. Then I got to the episode's tag, when our weary hero returned home at the end of the day. He didn't live in Dracula's castle; instead the show conjured up a dazzlingly bland suburban family scene for him straight out of The Donna Reed Show. That's when I realized that if TV iconography still means anything at all anymore, we're supposed to think this guy actually is morally impregnable.

And why not, really? There's a reason why he believes that only a fiction about innocence can make us better people: in the world of this show there's no such thing as real innocence. Murder One is the bleakest and most cynical series in the history of TV. Its ruling assumption about the legal system is that everybody is lying all the time: clients, lawyers, judges. For all I can tell, the court reporters are faking the transcripts. That's bad enough--worse is the corollary that the only way to get any good out of the system is to tell bigger lies.

The demonstration of this thesis has had a certain cruel elegance. In the second episode a black motorist was on trial for causing a traffic accident in a fit of rage; after his lawyer shredded the unconscious racism of the principal witness against him, the jury found him not guilty--whereupon the judge told him the acquittal proved the system was color-blind. He made the mistake of replying that if the system really were color-blind, he would never have been arrested in the first place: a truism that instantly got him jailed for contempt. Only when the lawyer talked him into lying about how free of the taint of bigotry the judge obviously was did he get sprung: but he was so virulently angry about what happened to him that we suddenly understood that he must have been guilty of the original crime all along.

But that's not our hero's problem--nor evidently is it ours. The system worked: the attorney got the client to lie, and the client went free. Winning really is the only measure of virtue left. Certainly Murder One's hero can't do anything more than register the dim sense that everything else has been lost--that once upon a time you knew that Perry Mason's clients had to be innocent, because otherwise why would a TV hero defend them? A couple of weeks ago Benzali got a client he believed to be guilty freed on transparently perjured testimony; as lawyer and client sped off together in the limo, the client said, "I'm just glad I've got a friend like you." Benzali turned away, his expression so dark I thought his head would implode. "I'm not your friend, you scumbag," the expression read. "I don't have friends." It was an eloquent message: the rest of the world is worried about global warming; on TV they're settling in for the ice age.

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

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