The imitation of life we get from prime-time television bears little resemblance to the real thing, one of TV's top producer-writers admits. But he doesn't think that's because almost all network shows come out of nutsy-cuckoo Hollywood, where folks compare shrinks at nude poolside pot parties.
No, no. "The idea that we're all a bunch of rich people who lead insulated lives and go to each other's parties is inaccurate," says Allan Burns, co-creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," one of the most respectable hits in TV history. Burns is now an executive producer of "Lou Grant," a new fall CBS series starring Ed Asner in the role he played on the Moore show.
"There are those of us," Burns says, "who were not born" in Beverly Hills, who came from other parts of the country - and Canada to boot - and we bring our backgrounds and something of our roots with us." Burns was born in Baltimore and raised in Honolulu, which may not be terribly typical but which disqualifies him for the title of Hollywood tot.
Yet even he won't go so far as to claim television's nightly and determined output of fluff and whoopee is an accurate reflection of the lives of the millions who watch it. Hollywood is not to blame for this, he says. TV is just, in that timehonored and all-justifying phrase, giving them what they want.
"People in the business tend to believe that viewers don't want to watch their own lives played back at them," says Burns. "I remember when we were going through the divorce and separation business on 'Rhoda,' we got all kinds of mail not so much taking sides in the divorce as telling us to drop it altogether. They said, in effect, 'We don't want to turn on television to watch misery or other people's problems. We want to escape our own.'
"I wonder if any entertainment medium accurately reflects the world. You go to see plays and you know that nobody is that witty for 2 1/2 hours straight. We have enough dramatic things happening in one hour of 'Lou Grant' to keep a real person busy for five years. But that's dramatic license. What we see on television cannot totally accurately reflect what life is all about."
But couldn't it get just a little closer? It's true that situation comedies are more realistic now than they were in the '50s, but television had live dramas then that even if they didn't always deal with hot social topics, at least seemed to speak more directly to the central problems of existence. And in recent years, the TV trend has been away from even Norman Lear's brand of self-congratulatory relevance and into the cheerful ignorance of "Happy Days."
Deanne Barkley, NBC vice president in charge of TV movies, was recently quoted as declaring, "There's a change in audience desire. There's a desire for escapism." That's a change?
Burns is going to try to deal with some "heavy" stuff on the "Lou Grant" show, but he's not sure how much acceptance there will be.
"Basically, we're taking a comedy character and putting him into dramatic shows," Burns says. "I wonder if anybody's going to watch it. We leaven it with jokes and funny stuff in the city room of the newspaper where it's set, but much of the subject matter is serious."
Opening programs will deal with such subjects as urban terrorism (the newsroom gang will be taken hostage), conditions at mental institutions, and gang warfare in the barrio of East Los Angeles. One program will be based on the case of a New York Nazi party leader who was revealed by a reporter to be Jewish, then committed suicide when the story was published.
As Oscar Levant said in "The Band Wagon," "That'll leave 'em laughing."
"I have a feeling the network is very leery of our show" because it will attempt to deal with such realities, Burn says. "The published prognosis is that we'll be a hit, but I'm not sure the network shares that confidence. But if the show fails, it will be a magnificient failure - I mean, it'll be a failure for all the rightreasons. We're trying to be different."
Burns sounds sincere. Most of the people in television claim they are trying to be different, but what they mean is, "Just like 'Laverne and Shirley,' only different." Burns says, "I'm not sure an audience attuned to 'Charlie's Angels' is going to be ready for our show. But somebody used to watch "The Defenders." Somebody used to watch 'Playhouse 90' and 'Studio One.'"
There is little incentive to get serious in a television series, to get beyond at most a surface, seeming-seriousness, but the success of a series like "Family" (unfortunately to be slotted against "Lou Grant") is slightly encouraging. A recent NBC news special on King Tut's treasures finished in the top 10, while the all-out farce comedy, "A Year at the Top," on CBS was way down there at the bottom.
Maybe viewers are getting so tired of all the entertainment on the local news shows that they crave a little reality when prime time rolls around.
Of course you can't blame people for wanting to forget their troubles and for using television as Unguentine for the mind. Except that never before in human history have so many people had so much instant access to so much cheap fantasy. Night after night after night, TV appears like a fairly godmother to banish the real world without even the wave of a wand.
"It worries me," says Burns. "As a father, it worries me that my kids watch so much escapist entertainment, that they get so much of this fun-and-games view of life. They see a world where people get killed but if doesn't hurt, where two girls working in a brewery have a pretty good time.
"There is definitely a lack of reality to television."