The real theme of the new television season has nothing to do with the soft bounce of the feminine bosom or the fine art of deep cleavage. The underlaying message in show after show new and old alike is that the people who are running things in this country do not know what they are doing.
Corporations, institutions and the government itself are in the hands of incompetents, according to this gospel and American life has become a nearly Marxist class struggle between the blumbling bosses and the put-upon little people who must cope with the bedlam wreaked from above.
A generation that spent the '60s ransacking the nooks and crannies of The Establishment for pockets or corruption and finding many has now grown up into just another consumer target audience for television; they are young affluent and upwardly mobile, and they buy things. They buy record albums by self-styled "outlaw" rock stars whose careers are under-written by gigantic corporations like RCA and CBS.
The message that television had designed to please this audience of former boat-rockers is an update on the old "don't trust abybodyo over 30" maxim. Basically it says: Don't trust anybody in authority. Situation comedies show us not that power necessarily corrupts, but that it does attract a large number of despots, needs and idiots.
Authority figures are routinely and ritually gored and ridiculed on both and old and new comedy show and dramas. The resident heavy on "WKRP in Cincinnati" is also the highest-ranking continuing character-the radio station manager, a simpering middle aged mugwump who still jumps when his mommy says boo. On the "The Waverly Wonders" there are two of them-a straight-laced woman principal and a prissy ex-coach who dares to button his suit jacket and is referred to contemptuosly as "old pinch face."
In what might appear a stunning example of post-Watergate cynicism, "Grandpa Goes to Washington" set up amonp other easy targets a venal and crooked governor and Grandpa's "fathead" of a son, who is supposed to be an aide to the Joint Chief of Staff. He spends his days airplanes into waste-baskets.
One might have expected to encounter caricaturs like these is an off-Broadway, counter-cultural satire of the '60s. Now they're on 100 percnet corporate-created, establishment-approved American commercial network television.
Critic Michael Arlen took a look at prime-time television last season and found it saturated with what he considered adolesent fantasies. He saw "Barretta" as a rebellious little boy who was perpetually at odds wiht he thic-skulled and slow-moving adult authority figures on the program. This trend has done anything but abate this year, even though "Baretta" as well as "Kojak" have gone off to late-night return heaven.
On the new comedy hit "Taxi", evil is embodied in a short, Napoleonic and, to quote ABC publicity, "tyrannical" dispatcher. He clearly symbolizes the bosses, the owners of the cab company that employs the heros, and they like the enlisted men and good-guy doctors of "MASH." That is, there are victims of a predictment perpetrated by powers that be.
NBC's "W.E.B," the campiest accidental comdey on the air, takes the dumb-boss stereotype to an extreme on would have thought especially unlikely for a network TV show; the villains, some of whom shop just short of twirling mustaches and brandishing overdue mortgages, are executives of a television network. In the first installment, the meanest and the twirliest was referred to by another character as a "sexual degenerate."
He later threatened to cripple and blind a playwright whose TV show wasn't up to snuff. NBC President Fred Silverman has reportedly and understandably ordered these executive jackals loveabled-up a bit in future scripts, but for now the power-mongers portrayed on the show make the sleaziest of Caesars seem like sweety-pies.
There is only one thing worse than being a coporate executive, according to the new mythology of TV series fiction, and that is being a government official or a high-ranking civil servant-anything that smacks of "politics." On ABC's barely literate ya-hoo comedy "Carter County," politics is personified by the city's mayor. He is portrayed week-in and week-out as a bigot, a medagogue, a hypocrite of the moron.
The heroic coroner of Quicny" must deal notonly with skullduggery from the underworld but with a politicking boss who lacks Quincy's proletarian savvy. The unrelenting spoilsport of "Welcome Back, Kotter" perhaps the most shamelessly rabble-rousing kiddie show in prime time television history-is the school's stuffy old, mean old education and a prune's view of life.
Naturally the lovable, laughable and monosyllabic punk heros of the show regularly make an ass of him.
Some TV programs do glorify authority figures, ocassionally well beyond the outer limits or credibility, but the Old Gibraltars on these shows are usually assistant, one female and one male, and thus white-maned Lorne Green abetted in peace-keeping on "Battlestar Galactica" by a flock of warrior pretty-boys who help resist the oppression of the mechanical villains.
NBC's Eddie Capra. of "The Eddie capra Mysteries," and "Kaz," on CBS, are two lawyers who both operate within the systems, but just barely; they owe all their validity and effectiveness to the fact that they are unorthodox and trouble-making. Their pinstriped lawyers bosses look on helplessly, of tolerantly, from plush offices and palatial homes-both physical cues that tell us we should be wary of them, hust as the marverick heroes tend to be.
The whimsical irony of it all is that the people who create these fantasies, the people who run the networks that put them on the air, the people who sell advertising to be implanted in the shows, the people who run the companies that buy the ads, and the people who produce the commercials, all tend to live in palatial. They are rolling in the money that their TV shows brand suspect.
Naturally, in all these ritual dramas and comedies, the feisty common person comes out spiritually victorious over the ruling oppressor. And the comic tradition of the triumphant little guy is hardly new; it was the essence of the immortal Chaplin. Will Rogers was ridiculing government officials long before Johnny Carson took after them, though of course Will never had an audience of 10 million at one shot.
Lurking beyond the evident pattern is all the simplistic adversary situations, however, is the suggestion that a system which promotes incompetents to the position of chief and allows the disreputable and uncaring to achieve power even be suffering a breakdown.
The populist heros are shown to be resilient, forgiving, and morally superior to the clowns in command, yet there is an aura of hopelessness to their plight and a resigned malaise beneath the superficial escapism. The kids who grew up tossing around the word "Revolution" in the 60s are now to content to stay home and watch TV shows that say there will be no revolution but that one must accept the corruption and insensitivity of the establishment as facts of American life.
If the pattern is evident, the causes and effects are not. Indeed, it may be that the effects are virtually immeasurable; how could we tell what this heavy of ritualistic wish-fulfillment is doing to tens of millions of TV viewers.?
The causes are simpler to pinpoint.
The so-called creative artists who work in television-and who sometimes stretch both terms to their breaking points-are at least adept at gauging the public taste in fantasy. But in addition, many of them feel they are suffering under an oppressive establishment themselves. They are the largely helpless instruments of network writer is venting his anger against the network high command.
That is why it would be mistake to regard this anti-authority syndrome as some sort of conspiracy to undermine the people's faith in their leadership and their institutions. It's more likely a reflection that this disenchantment is now so universal that it has become acceptable-and marketable-theology within the establishment itself.
It's not that television hates America. It's that television hates television. What we may have in the new TV season is an all-time classic in the annals of exhibitionistic self-loathing, and what all those bulbous buffoons may represent is not the people who run TV. It would be encouraging to say that the joke's on them, but at this point we can't say with certainty just who the joke is on. It could be on us.