The Surreal World | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Surreal World

Some of the new shows don't make the slightest sense. Why should they? the ones that try to make sense - they're the ones with the air of incipient cancellation.



I never begin watching a new TV season without a pious acknowledgment of how hard it must be to make a series--any series. It's a rare show these days that carries itself with any grace. There aren't even all that many shows on the air right now that look professional. The new shows are as lame a collection of befuddled losers as I can remember, and several of the returning elite shows, the ones you figure should at least have some passing idea of what they're doing, have exploded in midair. Is it really such a challenge to turn out a competent product that's at least slightly more involving than the Weather Channel? Judging by this past premiere month, it's damn near impossible.

Of the new shows, only Nash Bridges on CBS has any real sense of style. Maybe too much: it's altogether baffling. It's disguised as just another cop show, but its weary routine of car chases and shoot-outs is adrift in a landscape as mysterious as a Chirico painting. The police station is an inexplicably crumbling Romanesque rotunda; Nash lives in a half-ruined penthouse apartment of derelict glamour. He often shows up for stakeouts in a flaming ocher vintage convertible that's somehow invisible to the bad guys. I can't say I have the slightest idea what this show is getting at, and yet because the surface is so deceptively conventional, its subliminal propaganda for the surrealist worldview is gliding across America as effortlessly as a summer cloud.

More typical of the new shows is Profiler, NBC's series about a woman tracking down serial killers. It looks like a standard recycling of a big-time movie, The Silence of the Lambs. The pilot even stole the bit where Hannibal Lecter promises to leave Clarice alone because "the world is more interesting with you in it." (It did not, however, sound anywhere near as plausible when Profiler's Lecter clone said it to the bland, nervous heroine.) But Profiler had a surprise waiting for the attentive viewer: this brazen theft turned out to be only a diversionary feint. The pilot was actually an extremely close copy--so close it made the "created by" credit look like the last word in cynicism--of an obscure movie called Manhunter, which was adapted from an earlier Hannibal Lecter novel by the author of Silence of the Lambs, and which the producers were plainly betting the mass audience hadn't seen. Profiler was desperately camouflaging itself as a rip-off of one movie so you wouldn't guess it was really a rip-off of a different movie. Sad to say, it's the only original gimmick I've seen so far this year.

As for the returning shows--well, who would have supposed that Seinfeld would have come back from its summer break in such shocking shape? It's gone from the invincible to the unwatchable at record speed, and what's frightening is that it only took one slipup, one nagging little glitch, to bring on the catastrophe.

You may recall it from last season: Seinfeld's writers thought it would be hilarious to free George from his impending marriage by visiting an absurdist death on his horrible fiancee Susan. (She was fatally poisoned by toxic envelope glue.) Then they capped the joke in typical style: the gang received the bad news with the same uncomfortable diffidence they might feel at hearing that a dry cleaner has ruined a coat they didn't much like. That was where we left them at the season finale: awkwardly drifting out of the hospital in search of a cup of coffee.

We've had a whole summer to reflect on what an inept move that was. In that one moment the Seinfeld team wrecked the fragile premise they'd been working so hard to shore up for almost a decade: that it's somehow charming the way these people have been idling away their lives. But their enervating Proustian analysis of double-dipped potato chips and "soup Nazis" succeeds only because they've never once had anything more important to think about. When they're confronted by real death and they callously shrug it off, suddenly we think we've had them all wrong from the beginning: the real reason they're so obsessed with the random gunk of the quotidian world is that they're just a bunch of sociopathic jerks.

So now what can possibly happen? They can't really return to the old round of obsessive hairsplitting banter, but they don't have the nerve to go all the way and make fun of mourning and bereavement. Instead the show has suffered a full-blown creative meltdown and reemerged as a stark existentialist morality drama. The Eumenides are swarming around George now: he's suffering unrelenting persecution for his soulless inability to feel guilt over Susan's death. The hints are already flying that he'll end up wrongly convicted of her murder. Meanwhile Elaine is making a desperate attempt to get out of this increasingly claustrophobic domain before it's too late, but her new friends have recently revealed themselves to be sinister doppelgangers of Jerry, George, and Kramer. Clearly the pit of hell is yawning for them all; the "show about nothing" has morphed into a show about Nothingness.

Of course the explanation may be simply that the Seinfeld team is sick of being on the air and has come to hate its audience. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Elaine, suggested as much recently in an interview in which she said that her ideal Seinfeld episode would involve all the characters meeting their doom in a head-on collision with a propane truck. Her remark is typical of a disturbing trend this year. Many long-running shows are revealing moods of despondency and free-floating rage. Just turn on Letterman for a blast from the furnace: he's lashing out at guests and flaying himself like an inmate of Dante's inferno because a throwaway line didn't get a big enough laugh. Other shows that have outlived their time are erupting in freaky flings of nihilistic abandon. This was how the vampire cop show Forever Knight responded to the news of its imminent cancellation: in the last 15 minutes of an apparently routine episode all the lead characters died. Nick's partner was fatally shot, the lovesick coroner was dead of a vampire bite, and Nick himself got a stake through the heart: The End. The show went out like Ahab, for hate's sake spitting its last breath at its faithful viewers.

Maybe there's something to admire in such a grand gesture. But what worries me is that some new shows are coming down the chute with their despair and contempt already in place. They know in advance that they don't have what it takes, so they open up their pilot episodes with a preemptive snarl of defiance. In NBC's Dark Skies the ostensible idea is to do an X-Files/ Independence Day knockoff by dovetailing the alien-invasion conspiracy and all the big events of recent history. But the underlying impulse is to ridicule whatever Americans might consider precious about their heritage. The pilot had the gall to propose that JFK was assassinated because he knew too much about a crashed flying saucer. We haven't reached 1968, so while we've been told that Bobby Kennedy is a marked man (he, too, has read the fatal top secret file), we've so far been spared the news that Martin Luther King was rubbed out because he'd discovered a UFO infestation in the Everglades.

I don't know when I've seen a show that seemed so much like an invitation to a fistfight. If Americans really gave a damn about our history, the producers seem to be taunting us, we'd be livid about a TV series that trashes public tragedies for the sake of a jokey exercise in conspiracy mongering. But Dark Skies knows perfectly well that we don't care. Who out there in the audience even knows enough about our past to call them wrong? American politics is run wholly by assassination, the Challenger disaster was a CIA black-box program gone wrong--why not? It's probably what most voters think anyway.

It's a good thing the show doesn't have enough energy to sustain itself past its initial spurt of venom. The alien conspiracy has already been laid out in too much detail, and isn't in itself very much fun. The second episode seemed like a retread of the pilot, and doubtless the remaining episodes of the run will involve nothing more strenuous than the arbitrary insertion of extraterrestrial subtexts into Watergate and Iran-contra. I'm relieved that the producers didn't study their source material more closely: The X-Files has been dropping dark hints about its own master conspiracy for three years now, and we still don't have the slightest idea what it's about.

But there's the difference between a hit show and a tepid flop: The X-Files dances carelessly through its premise; Dark Skies is grindingly somber. The truth that Dark Skies (and all of this year's X-Files clones) overlooks is, The X-Files isn't really about aliens. Mulder and Scully may appear horrified at each new intimation of occult doom (it's impressive, by the way, that they can still muster such looks of dread after all these years), but deep down they don't give a damn about the flying saucer or the werewolf spoor. So the government is engaged in a joint venture with an alien race to clone a hybrid species of worker drones (I gather from the season premiere that this is the current working hypothesis): big deal. If it weren't that it'd be something else--and probably will be something else five episodes from now. The real reason they're on the occult beat is that they like it. They're having a lovely time bonding with each other by cell phone, while they zoom around from UFO crash site to sinister government office complex to the alien-autopsy freezer in Hangar 18.

The secret of a hit show is this: the characters are happy. Most people on TV are wretched. On sitcoms families snipe unrelentingly at each other behind their frozen grins of wholesome pride; on dramas burnt-out cops wander through Boschian urban nightscapes of pervasive horror. But on The X-Files or on Nash Bridges the heroes glide through a world of completely phantasmal dangers just for the fun of it--the same way that the doctors in ER do their record-speed slalom runs through an obstacle course of misery. They're not there to solve problems; they're only in it for the adrenaline.

But few shows have the nerve to try for such an exalted state. This season, as most seasons, what you get from shows are mostly the trembling smiles of frightened children trying to pretend they're having a good time. Edgy, vulgar tripe like Townies, wheezingly obsolescent Moonlighting clones like Mr. and Mrs. Smith--I mean, really: the actors look like their first paycheck included the cancellation notice. So far I've only come across one show, other than Nash Bridges, that even glimpses what TV happiness is really about: Baywatch Nights.

The original Baywatch, of course, has grown so happy it can barely be bothered with its ostensible premise anymore. These days the lifeguards don't save people from drowning; that's just too heavy for them. One recent, wholly typical episode found them lusting after a new generation of high-tech jet skis. Lesser park-district employees might have asked the local city council for an appropriation; our aerodynamic chums raised the money themselves, by the simple expedient of staging a nationally televised pay-per-view bikini contest. (The entrants were seen posing against palm trees and roiling flames--sort of like the napalmed jungle in Apocalypse Now, only with silicone.) Is it too much to ask that they would then be shown using their new fleet to rescue endangered swimmers? Of course it is: the final scene showed them miles away from shore, not another human being in sight, doing flips and barrel rolls with their toys as giddily as dolphins.

But Baywatch Nights reveals the dark side of the Baywatch world. Our lifeguard hero Mitch, it now appears, is moonlighting as an investigator of the occult. (In an earlier, unsuccessful incarnation of Baywatch Nights he was a run-of-the-mill private eye.) His cases are mostly X-Files discards; episodes have clever titles like "The Creature" and "Terror in the Deep," but they follow the classic Baywatch formula of listless pacing punctuated by inexplicable leaps in logic.

In "The Creature" Mitch was called in by mysterious government agents to check out a ransacked laboratory. His assistant (I haven't quite figured out yet where he got the money to hire her) spotted a mysterious icky glob on an overturned computer--and, because she's evidently an expert in experimental genetics, she was able to deduce instantly that the lab had been used for breeding a race of vicious mutated frog-people. Mitch then ambled over to the local nightclub, where he spotted a beautiful blond woman sitting by herself. Who is she? Obviously an escapee from the lab. (My best guess is, Mitch had rented Species the night before and had concluded that all frog-people look like Natasha Henstridge.) He tried to befriend her by expressing his firm conviction that everyone has a right to live, even savage half-reptilian mutants. Heroically, if perhaps misguidedly, he then carried her through a bunch of sewers toward the ocean, where she might have a chance to lay millions of eggs unmolested. But along the way, presumably because of his conversation, she concluded that southern California was no place for her and, in the poignant final scene, chose immolation at the hands of a military hit squad. (They shot at her and she burst into flames. What do you want from me?) Mitch sadly drifted off down the beach again on his way back to his day job.

OK, granted: it's unwatchably awful. But it works on so many levels. It finally illuminates, in one flash of poetry, the mystery of Baywatch: that is, how David Hasselhoff's performance as Mitch could have been allowed to reach the last stage of languorous indifference. (He wandered through the bikini contest as detachedly as a Zen monk.) The answer is, Mitch has other things on his mind--he can hardly bring himself to worry about the daily mob of heedless beachgoers when he's secretly a Van Helsing-style walker in darkness. Or maybe Baywatch Nights is what's going on in his daydreams, as he spends hours in solitary contemplation of the ocean. Mysterious government agents stumped by a difficult case naturally turn to a lifeguard to help them out. He may seem like an overage loser perched up there on his tower, but if only people knew that he was one of the most important men in the world...and so on, deeper and deeper into wonderland.

So it doesn't make the slightest sense. Why should it? G.K. Chesterton once observed, "A cheerful mind cares less whether it is understood or not--as a man is less articulate when he is humming than when he is calling for help." The failing shows, the ones calling for help, the ones making their debut with an air of incipient cancellation--they're the ones that try to make sense. They're overloaded with explanations of the ineffable and rationalizations of the unworkable. Successful shows don't care. They drift according to their own whims, knowing that happiness alone will sustain that impossible balance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Jeff Heller.

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