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Watch Yourself

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I hear a lot of talk about how TV is making America's problems worse, but the truth is, TV these days is nothing if not good for you. Every show on the program grid is going hell-for-leather to be positive, caring, and issue oriented. You can't even settle in to savor an Amazon initiation ceremony on Xena: Warrior Princess without it turning into an uplifting lecture on self-esteem and cultural identity. And are we grateful? Do we stop to think about TV's problems? People ask me all the time, "What do you think is wrong with TV?" But I never hear anybody ask, "What does TV think is wrong with us?"

Right off the top: TV doesn't like the way we dress. I conclude this from the increasing popularity on daytime talk shows of something called the "surprise fashion makeover." It's like a drug intervention, except it involves giving up fluorescent polyester stretch pants. The motive, I'd guess, is sheer revulsion: the trendy staffers on these shows just can't bear any longer the fashion statements of their trailer-trash guests, so they've devised this elegant way of making their condescension seem like a special treat. No doubt if they had the budget we'd be seeing surprise liposuction.

But I have noticed lately that the makeover concept appears to hold a more obscure and profound meaning for certain talk-show hosts. When Jenny Jones went through a dark period a couple of months ago (as I recall from the tabloids, her guests had started murdering one another), she began doing makeover shows all the time, with a distinct faith-healing abandon--whole weeks of makeovers, makeovers for everybody in the underclass. Granted, it wasn't that much of a reach to line up panels of Wal-Mart gross-outs for that bearbaiting audience of hers to hoot and gibber at; and it's also true that her guests, more than those on other shows, do routinely show up for the taping in outfits so grotesque they can turn unwary spectators to stone. Still, the point appeared to be that magical gleam in Jenny's eyes when she saw these medusae emerge from the shadows as facsimiles of respectable citizens. It meant something to her; it lifted her spirits to see how many uglies she could help to the temporary attainment of beauty. It made her show seem, however briefly, almost as classy as Oprah.

But Geraldo has trumped her. He offers makeovers as a solution to social problems. A couple of weeks ago he did a show of makeovers for battered women. I must admit that the inherent value of this procedure eluded me, unless it was part of some witness-relocation program. But Geraldo made it plain that the issue was self-worth, a fresh start, empowerment. I don't know if I've ever seen him look more proud than when he showed off how these women looked in their new power-lunch suits. Regrettably there wasn't time for a follow-up show where we could see how they coped when their one good outfit was at the cleaner's. In fact, I had the impression that there was a mob of production assistants backstage ready to snatch back the glam wardrobe the instant the show finished taping. But again, that wasn't the point. It was the reflected glow the makeover gave the host: he'd made his guests look like they belonged on TV, so as far as he was concerned, they were now invulnerable.

The clear message is: TV is happy when we look good. We should all take this to heart. I think we should dress up even when we're going to watch our favorite shows at home. Which leads us to the question of how else we behave when we watch TV--because, let's face it, our living-room banter is just not witty enough.

TV has provided a role model for us: Friends. The show is not actually about friends as such: I think the name is intended as a reproof. We in the real world have taken the spiritually lazy route of making friends with people we like to be with. These six characters, on the other hand, have absolutely nothing in common and find each other's company intensely irritating. But they have made a commitment. They will stay in that vile apartment and viler coffeehouse forever, torturing one another until their polite smiles freeze into death's-head grimaces. Why? For the sake of witty banter. It's really rather noble. The men are cretins, the women airheads--and yet they have somehow managed to transcend their limitations in order to exchange repartee so rarefied it's a wonder they don't keel over from oxygen deprivation.

The show does allege a real-world subtext. It purports to be about the current American obsession with gender-specific dialects. In one episode, when Ross and Rachel--the two characters most perfectly suited to bore each other into a coma--finally do kiss, we're treated to "He said she said" crosscutting as they tell the story of the kiss to their fellow inmates of hell: Rachel in a swooning romance-novel rhapsody; Ross in the following Guy dialogue:

Joey: Kiss?

Ross: Yeah.

Joey: Tongues?

Ross: Yeah.

Joey: Cool.

OK, I know that the 90s guy is supposed to be a reactionary dork underneath his veneer of postliberal sophistication. But I do have a reasonably wide experience of life, and no gentleman of my acquaintance has ever asked me the second of those two questions. Guys don't talk like that, and I hope they never start. But that's just the point: to establish a ground level of vulgarity so low we can be all the more dazzled when they soar to their rhetorical pinnacles. Even Joey, who's established as a lunkhead so impenetrably dense he never gets anybody else's jokes, periodically disgorges epigrammatic pearls that would dazzle Congreve. (One week, when Chandler uttered a faux pas and began rubbing his temples in anxiety, Joey helpfully blurted out, "Just keep doing that--that'll turn back time.")

How do they do it? My theory is, they've learned it from TV. More to the point--they've mastered watching TV and we haven't.

I don't think it's an accident that the only TV the Friends are ever shown watching is cutting-edge slacker kitsch like Mexican wrestling movies. They're way beyond watching shows like their own. It would be too involving in some spiritually cramping sense; they might be called upon to have emotional responses, and that's not what they think real TV watching is about--or even what living is about. The Friends practice what I'm coming to think of as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 lifestyle. It grows out of the feeling that contemporary life is so self-evidently and all-pervadingly grade Z that the only possible response to it is to sit around and emit an unending stream of self-conscious jokes--just the way the Mystery Science boys keep finding in movies like Attack of the Giant Leeches the clear influence of Bresson. God knows, we've all had nights when we could connect with the Mystery Science premise of being trapped on a spaceship and forced to watch the worst movies ever made for all eternity. It's the insomniac horror any of us feels at 3 AM, faced with the choice between 30 cable informercials and one bottom-of-the-barrel rerun of The Rat Patrol; Nietzsche, under roughly similar circumstances (he was thinking of Wagner's operas), describes such moments as "those secret and weird midnight hours of the soul, where cause and effect seem to have fallen asunder." The Friends have simply applied this style of despairing comedy to their daylight life--and it works just as well, because life and TV are opposing poles of the same icy domain of disaffected irony.

It's much the same--actually, it's the same, only much worse--over on the cable network F/X. This is Friends and Mystery Science Theater combined into one devouringly self-reflexive vision. The programming consists of 60s TV dregs so foul even Nick at Nite won't show them--F/X has dug all the way down to Family Affair and Rawhide. But at each commercial break we cut to the stage set of a New York apartment more surrealistically vast than the one in Friends, where a bunch of Friends clones are shown watching the shows with us, keeping us company, wondering just the way we are whether some bit player in Mission: Impossible might have been a babe who later turned up in Vega$. The one thing nobody in that apartment ever asks is whether any of this crud is worth sitting through in the first place. But that's because they and we know it would be exactly the same if we changed the channel. TV is beyond value judgment; it's about watching yourself watching something else from a secure position of emotional reserve.

The TV frame is even more imploded on F/X's morning show Breakfast Time. Here the Friends clones do Today-ish celebrity interviews and soft news while they wander from room to room of that set--the plumbing expert waits for them in the bathroom, the financial expert is shown cooling her heels in the den. But now we're introduced to more parody TV characters. There's a wacky unseen neighbor, just as in Home Improvement, who sits at a breakfast table permanently screened from us by his morning paper, and there's also a wacky supernatural houseguest, a la Alf--a leering hand puppet named Bob who lurks behind the furniture making salacious remarks. I have to admit I don't understand how I'm supposed to respond to that puppet. It's genuinely unnerving to me when they have on a serious guest--a psychologist, for instance, explaining how to talk about death to children--and Bob is shown hovering in the background through the entire interview, nodding somberly at each new bit of wisdom.

But here's what's truly unnerving: Breakfast Time is aware of my problem. Its solution: subtitles. Every single segment on the show is accompanied by a running text explaining what we're seeing--even when the hosts themselves have just explained it. A gardener displays a houseplant, and the subtitle informs us "HE'S TELLING US ABOUT HOUSEPLANTS"; over a clip of a new movie an actor has shown up to plug, we read "PARAMOUNT SENT US THIS CLIP FROM THE MOVIE." The Unseen Neighbor is helpfully glossed "HE'S HEARD BUT NOT SEEN" every time he appears, as though one day we'll finally get the joke--whatever the hell the joke is.

So it comes down to this: the American TV audience is helpless. We don't know how to dress or how to talk--and now we don't even know how to watch a damn morning program without a constant stream of reassuring messages. I just can't believe the situation can be so grim. Whatever anyone might say about our fashion or our conversation, nobody before has suggested that Americans don't know how to watch TV.

So maybe we're missing something here. Maybe these unrelenting lessons are really meant for somebody else.

I know how paranoid it sounds. But bear with me. I got a book in the mail the other day, doubtless by mistake--opening the package was eerily like the teaser of an Outer Limits episode. The book is called Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism, by Jane Feuer. The skeptics among you will dismiss it as nothing more than a piece of academic hackwork churned out by a university press. But I wonder. I've read it through, and there's too much in it that sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear if you went channel surfing with Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still--stuff about thirtysomething's "quasi-Brechtian use of multiple diegeses" and whether Moonlighting can be "easily assimilated to a concept of postmodernism as complicitous critique." It's filled with X-Files conspiracy mongering: did Ronald Reagan really exist, or was he the creation of a government research project? The author calls him "a nonexistent phantom figure whose effect as an image was nevertheless real." And finally there are glimpses of sci-fi horror unknown to heedless earthlings--such as the terrifying news that "there already exists a substantial body of academic criticism" on Miami Vice and that Max Headroom "would also inspire voluminous commentary were its texts more readily available" (translation: it's not in reruns). It's like overhearing an epidemiologist observe that there are diseases worse than Ebola fever, but thank God they haven't crashed out of the rain forest yet.

But most of all there was the thesis. Diligent perusal reveals that the book offers encrypted instructions on how to achieve the correct ironic distance when you watch 80s shows like thirtysomething and Dynasty. The directive to her readers, as nearly as I can make it out, is this: they must watch the show, but not buy the tie-in products. Just ask yourself: who among us would need such a message? Consider also that the author seems to think tie-in products are strictly an 80s phenomenon--a thirtysomething mail-order catalog strikes her as "a mind-boggling example of art fully penetrated by capital." Isn't the fact that she's never heard of Gilligan's Island lunch boxes another tip-off that she's a recent arrival on our world?

The climax of her book is an extended discussion of a tie-in line of clothes and perfumes called the Dynasty Collection, evidently intended as a sort of makeover home game. "According to hypodermic or effects theories," she writes, "the Dynasty merchandising campaign could not fail." I don't know what hypodermic theories are--they must refer to hallucinogenic drug use among the theorists, because anybody from an earthly business school knows there's no such thing as a merchandising campaign that can't fail. And the Dynasty Collection did fail; the problem, I gather, was that it was too expensive. This prompts from Feuer the following straight-line transmission to the mother ship: "The ultimate failure of the Dynasty Collection raises interesting questions for a reception aesthetics that acknowledges the commodified nature of mass cultural decodings but that does not construct a binary opposition between commodification and subcultural activation. Perhaps the financial failure of the Dynasty Collection was also an ideological failure."

If I may presume to paraphrase: TV ought to be completely successful in brainwashing its viewers into buying all TV-related products; but it isn't, so refusing to buy the products amounts to cultural subversion--or at the very least, provides the ironic distance that makes it possible to watch the shows. I can't imagine any possible way this could be the case, but I'll give Feuer this much: at least I now know what the fictional situation in Mystery Science Theater looks like from the point of view of the hero's strange captors.

Here's what I think must be happening. For more than 50 years now TV signals have been radiating out into space. We've all along assumed that the aliens would be baffled by them; I myself have had nightmares that fleets of flying saucers would one day show up and demand we explain Supermarket Sweep or face planetary obliteration (a moment, by the way, when the job of TV critic will take on the historic importance it was always meant to have). But that's all wrong. TV has from the beginning been meant for them. We here on earth are just eavesdropping. This explains why TV has to keep rehearsing how to dress and talk like a successful earthling--and why the emotional tone of TV is as icy as the interstellar void. They're obviously on their way now: impeccably groomed, amazingly witty, and ready to apply for a job at the media studies department of your local university.

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

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