Taming the electronic Cyclops involves turning it on itself, and that is what the media magpies of TVTV have done in "The TVTV Show," a series pilot Saturday at midnight on Channel 4 and other NBC stations.
There may be a lot of inside jokes in this wickedly satirical 90 minutes, but one of its key points is that television is the national in-joke that all of us can be in on. If we maintain a sense of detached and suspicious bemusement, we lessen the chance that it will turn us into Kens, Barbies, Donnies or Maries, or, in more melodramtic terms, the "humanoids" envisloned by Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky's "Network."
Where the TVTV generation has an edge is that it knows TV better than almost anything. It grew up on television and doesn't know life without it. This generation, as a TV producer recently noted, doesn't think of the television experience as a replica of reality, but as a reality of its own.
"The TVTV Show" was screened recently at TVTV's" media shanty, a gadget-strewn house behind a redwood fence about two blocks from Beverly Hills. Michael Shamberg, executive producer of the special and a TVTV founder, apologized for the program in advance, saying it warn't "fast" enough. May be not, but "The TVTV Show" is still a freshly off-the wall, brain-teasing, aptly daft love hate epic about America and its television set.
The show airs in the time slot of NBC's "Saturday NIght" and while not as yock-oriented (there is no studio audience orlaugh track), "TVTV" aims at similar targets but in a more sophisticated, more purely television sort of way. "Saturday Night" producer Lorne Michaels has referred to his show as "the Off-Broadway of television." The "TVTV Show" doesn't try to be the anything-else of television. It's he television of television.
The show repeatedly and breezily shifts points of view: a typical American family that hangs its brains out to dry in front of the tube: a rabidly spatting and hair-spraying man woman locan nesws anchor team; patrons of the Tune-Inn bar, where TV is the raison detre, as it were, and the pianist teases tipplers with themes from "Maverick" and "Mister Ed"; and the great American Everyviewer in his beer-speckled undershirt, trying to survive each new attack on his sanity and sense of worth.
Satirizing TV is both too easy and too dificult. Where do you begin and where do you end? The TVTV special includes brilliant jabs at TV news biz, commercials, and various flaky fakes, but the show's victory is really that of having the right attitude.
What it recognizes is that TV is not just a medium but an environment. TV news doesn't try to be like newspaper news any more; if anything, newspapers are trying to be like television. And when kids go to rock concerts at wired-up arenas like Washington's Capital Centre, they tend to watch the giant video screen images rather than the genuine ariticles on the stage.
In "The TVTV Show," the TV-addicted family applauds young Tommy's book report because it is shallow, glib and simplistic in just the style of the average on-camera "critic." Dad tells him, "That was a very professional job." When a patron of the Tune-Inn is hit by a truck, he is delighted to find out it's the WTKO "Action News" mobile unit and that the mishap will be featrured on that night's show.
In a hilariously apocalyptic final borrowed from an earlier TVTV project (on public television), our TV family discovers that the home being surrounded by police on live TV is their own, and soon they get the 20th century kick of watching themselves watch themselves on TV, heedless of the fact they are all in utter jeopardy. At this syblime instant, their lives and television's version of life blur into one insane cop-sitcom-talk-sports action-news show. It's slick symbolism at just the right level of looniess.
Maybe what the program is saying about television's reality warp isn't unprecedented, but saying it this way on network television is.
Some of the writing on the show is woefully undisciplined - particularly during a protracted theraphy duel between the two feuding anchorpersons. Much of the acting is tentative or numb, though there are such deadeye performances as Mary Frann and Howard Hesseman as the news team, Gerrit Graham as a juvenile delinquent, and Kate Murtajh as the fat madonna of the Tune-Inn.
Dan Aykroyd of "Saturday Night" pops up briefly as one of the cops laying siege; co-writer Bill Murray, playing a news crew member, completed his role before joining the "Saturday Night" cast.
At the present time, we are going through a moment of soul-searching rebellion against the sage of television, epitomized in Chayefsky's magic film "Network," the PTA's anti-violence campaign, and Marie Winn's fascinating diatribe book, "The Plug-In Drug." Winn says that watching anything at all on TV renders one blank, passive and mute. The suggested remedy is to do away with television.
But television will prevail.People like those at TVTV aren't out to overthrow the television industry by force or violence. Indeed, they've just signed with the William Morris Agency - like President Ford - and can hardly be considered a threat to the TV-dependent American economy. They're in this for money, too.
But in kicking television around, this program ironically demonstrates that grand possibilities for TV still exist; in ripping the lid off the medium, it shows there may be something inside that great head we thought empty.