February 02, 2008

As all the world knows, the Writers”€™ Guild of America is on strike against the studios and the networks. This television season is a wreck; next year’s is apparently over before it has begun.The Golden Globes were reduced to a terse news conference, similar in format to Mr. Blackwell’s annual unveiling of his Ten Worst Dressed List (though without the entertainment value). The Grammies and the Oscars may suffer like indignities. The future here in tinsel town looks dark.

So much is obvious to anyone who has a TV or watches movies. But as a long time resident of the L.A. area, I am in a position to see the collateral damage. It is not merely that those of my friends who are actors, screenwriters, stuntmen and the like face uncertain futures, and possibly ruin; there is greater fallout. The carpenters who work on sets, the designers of those sets, set designers, cameramen, grips, teamsters who service the studios, hairdressers, costumers, caterers, agents, flunkies, hangers-on, chauffeurs, financial planners, and masseuses”€”the list of those afflicted by the strike is endless. We are very much a company town out here, and while entertainment is not our only industry, it does bring in a huge chunk of the area’s income: that is why it merits a capital letter, as in “€œthe Industry,”€ much as San Francisco self-delusively labels itself “€œthe City.”€ (Though I am willing to concede our northern neighbor’s cultural, culinary, and architectural supremacy). It saddens me very much to see so many friends and others out of work; times are so tough here that even I can get a seat at the Ivy.

However, despite all of this sadness, one does have to take a good look at the smaller of the two media that have been thus crippled in order to gauge just how great the loss to the nation and the world really is. Most series are in reruns, although much of late night is recovering, as our favorite talking heads make their separate peaces with the Guild. Reality shows are proliferating in truly frightening array (can we be far from “€œInside the Morgue”€?), and game shows chatter on unaffected. It is to be feared that network television may never recover.

But would that be so bad? Not watching one’s favorite series also means missing out on the endless succession of commercials for ailments that one never spoke of in polite society when this writer was young. Nostrums for herpes, diarrhea, erectile dysfunction; douches, weak bladders, yeast infections and all the other horrors arising from Baby Boomer plumbing gone awry from decades of over or misuse”€”all are served up with glee by smiling, well-dressed people. These same paragons go on to intone the innumerable unpleasantness that may arise from using their products”€”liver damage, vomiting, sudden blindness, diaper rash, or whatever. Only a survivor from the 60s could find such approaches seductive”€”but then they are the ones with the discretionary income. My exposure to this stuff has plummeted as the amount of network TV I watch has plummeted.

Nor are the shows”€”even the ones I like”€”really to my taste. The comedies have become too smutty, as a rule, so cop shows beckon. But here one comes face-to-face, so to speak, with Jerry Brookheimer, the greatest propagandist of our age. “€œCold Case,”€ for example, was one of my faves, until it became obvious that the older cases almost always involve the oppression of either women, minorities, or homosexuals. It really does get tiresome.

But now this whole edifice is creaking, and may collapse. What to do? Well, if you have cable, there are many alternatives. If not, there is PBS (you can now get all the Jane Austen you can take on the revamped “€œMasterpiece Theatre”€). If you are particularly fortunate, you may have in your areas a station like our KDOC, which broadcasts endless ancient television shows. Failing that, you can reach the same stuff via the miracle of DVD.

In my house, the writer’s strike has led to my television, through the latter technologies, becoming possessed by the spirit of television past. “€œPerry Mason,”€ “€œThe Untouchables,”€ “€œThe Addams Family,”€ “€œThe Loretta Young Show”€ (a personal favorite among its scenes shows a young wife lighting and passing a cigarette to her hubby in an iron lung), and even more recent programs such as “€œDark Shadows,”€ “€œThe Greatest American Hero”€ and “€œThe Night Stalker”€ live again in the front room. I”€™ve even taken to watching “€œSCTV”€ and “€œShindig”€ episodes on YouTube. Carol Burnett will probably be joining them shortly.

This forced dive into nostalgia has brought me face-to-face with some unsettling realizations. It’s not just that Americans dressed and acted a whole lot better (or at least aspired to) back in the day; apparently they were brighter also. Take, for example, the slapstick comedy of “€œGreen Acres”€”€”not, you might think, an especially intellectual show. But I had forgotten how much of a cultural and historical background one needed to get the jokes! For example, upon hearing that Eddy Albert’s Oliver Wendell Douglas is once again going to act as a lawyer in a court case, Pat Buttram’s Mr. Haney drives up with his junk-mobile in yet another attempt to get the wary Mr. Douglas to but some of his shoddy wares. Producing a moth-eaten stuffed monkey before the astonished attorney-turned-farmer, the pedlar says, “€œThis is just what you need, Mr. Douglas!”€ “€œWhat is that thing?”€ comes the reply. “€œThis here was the star witness in the Scopes Monkey Trial!”€ Imagine anyone getting a laugh with that line today! Don”€™t get me started on “€œBewitched.”€

So my advice for riding out the strike to all whose incomes are not affected is to stock up on DVDs. Not only are the old shows more entertaining than what we have been getting heretofore, they may well raise your family’s cultural awareness level. If enough of us are thusly aesthetically reprogrammed, the public may start demanding higher quality from writers and networks. Who knows? It might even get it. And that would be worth giving up my hard won table at the Ivy for.


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