Ben Stein says the people who write and produce programs for prime-time network television are polluting the reservoir of American thought. He says it in his just-published book, "The View From Sunset Boulevard," and he says it while vociferously holding forth in the dining room of the Mulholland Tennis Club.
The easiest or at least most amusing way to find the Mulholland Tennis Club is to follow Ben Stein's famous "DREEMZ" license plate as his beige Mercedes 450SLC winds its way up, up and up curved roads that skirt gourmet lawns until, at the top, from the club's optimal perch, all of Hollywood can be seen down below. One searches in vain to spot the Golden Calf.
Stein, who is 34, the son of former White House economic adviser Herbert Stein, and an escapee from the suffocating bureaucracy of Washington to what he finds the liberating bureaucracy of Los Angeles, wrote his book after interviewing and getting to know many of the 200 writers and producers he says are responsible for almost everything Americans see on TV at night.
What disturbs him is that these people share a view of life that is eccentric, perverse and extremely unrepresentative of the country as a whole. "What we see on prime-time television is nothing less than the apotheosizing of Los Angeles," he writes, because "TV writers and producers replicate the world in which they live in their art, and the world they live in is the super- clean, super-bright world of Los Angeles, where even the slums are spotless and have palm trees in front."
The values being transmitted along with the programs, Stein thinks, represent the beliefs and prejudices of that tiny colony of cut-ups. Among the recurring ideas are that high-ranking military officials are all crazed despots (as in the recent "Pearl"), that businessmen are bad people at least and murderers at most (as in "Starsky and Hutch" and other cop shows), that beneath the placid veneer of small-town America seethes a sinister, malignant corruption (as in a recent "Rockford Files"), and, generally, that all poor people are good and never commit crimes unless their strings are being pulled by rich Mr. Bigs.
"On almost every episode of 'Columbo,'" Stein writes, "a rich businessman has killed someone and seeks to bully Columbo into leaving him alone because of his high status." Other cop shows often have rich villains, and even comedies like "Good Times" present viewers with wildly distorted ideas of what poverty is like. Stein says poor people watching this glamorized poverty feel frustrated and confused by what they see on the screen.
Some of Stein's arguments are a trifle tipsy, some of his own right-of-center bias seeps through (he was once a speechwriter for President Nixon) and he manages to misspell producer Garry Marshall's name at least a dozen times throughout the book. But "The View From Sunset Boulevard" still gives a bracing and clarifying new angle on something that continues to amaze many of us -- why television programming is so rotten. The more you think about this book, the more you think about this book. For once, someone has found someone to blame besides the network executives.
"Network executives are just the diners in the Writer's Guild restaurant," Stein says, smoking up a storm. "And the menu is extremely limited. I asked a network executive I know, 'How detailed is your guidance to these writers and producers, are you really calling the shots?' And he said, 'Absolutely no way. We say to them something like, we'd like stories with more college girls in them or more stories set on the beach, and then when they give us the script we say, well, that guy isn't very likeable -- could you make him more likeable?' They don't get into the guts of it."
In earlier TV days, we at least had two varieties of shaggy provincialism to sample on television, the East Coast kind and the West Coast kind. Now New York is dead as a production center and everything in prime time comes out of cuckoo-wealthy Hollywood. "The composition of the TV-making community, I believe, is becoming steadily more constricted, narrow and homogeneous," Stein says. "Self-selection has set in," so that writers-turned-producers hire only writers who are mirror images of themselves.
"Everybody knows everybody, and they all agree about everything," says Stein. "When I would go to dinner with these producers and they would talk to me about how there's a clique, a secret group of seven families, running America, and I would say, 'That's nonsense! That's ridiculous!', they would look at me like I was crazy, or from another planet, or else they concluded that I was myself a secret agent in the conspiracy."
Could it be that the writers and producers of Hollywood are just devising fables they think will appeal to existing middle-class attitudes?Stein won't buy that one. He says the rich businessman was not exclusively portrayed as a villain in movies when movies were the dominant medium, and doesn't understand why they should be in television -- except that in the dark nooks of the creative minds of Hollywood, businessmen are seen as monsters.
"I'm not that fond of businessmen myself," Stein says. "They're a greedy, mercenary, lawless group of people -- just like everybody else. But they're not murderers. Very few of them are murderers. And to show them all being murderers gives people a very bizarre view of the world.
Writers and producers here aren't anti-Establishment," Stein says. "They just think they're anti-Establishment. But they don't know what the real Establishment is. People in Hollywood think the Establishment is what it was 30 years ago. The Establishment is not the military men or the business men -- the Establishment is THEM! THEY! The media is the only Establishment that counts in America any more, and THEY run it!"
Stein interrupts himself at this dramatic moment of j'accuse to say to a busboy, "Alejandro, could I have some matches, please" and then drifts into an illustrative flashback. "The other night I watched -- this was so funny -- 'Quincy,' a really good show, and they had this drug dealer murdered. There were three suspects: an ex-con, a drug-addicted Mexican student, and a respectable actor who lived out in the suburbs in a big house. Now as soon as they showed us this house I said to my wife, 'He's gotta be the killer, because he's got the biggest house.' And indeed he was."
Again it is suggested to Stein that scorn for the rich seems a harmless and perhaps even healthy American tradition, and isn't he just a rich Hollywood writer himself, taking up the cause of his fellow moneybags? "I'm not rich at all," he insists. "I've never been rich. I'm really not." But he has a $35,000 car basking in the rain outside the tennis club. "I didn't buy it new, Tom," he says. "It cost $17,000 used and I could barely afford that."
"I'm not concerned about all this because I want to defend the rich," he says. "I'm concerned about it because this is a fragile country, and the national culture affects the national morale and willpower. If you are constantly using the culture to attack the culture, eventually it takes a toll. You cannot have shows going on year after year saying business people are murderers without having people hating business.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that there is a close connection between all the legislation regulating oil companies and all the unnecessary harassment by the government of business and the attitude toward businessmen that we get from TV."
Stein's campaign has already stirred up murmurings that he is a neo-Mc-Carthyite witch hunter who'd like nothing better than a new Hollywood blacklist to protect America from pernicious propaganda smuggled into our brains by wicked old Naughtywood.
"I knew people would bring this up," he says. "My intention is exactly the opposite -- not to keep anyone from working, but to have more people working in the business. Instead of drawing on the same people over and over again, maybe producers like Norman Lear [for whom Stein has worked] will say, 'Well, maybe we ought to try to get some people from Chicago or Fort Lauderdale writing these scripts.'"
Stein says his book has already lost him friends in the show-biz community -- where any hint of demurring is greeted the way doctors regard malpractice suits -- which is ironic because it would be hard to find a bigger booster of L.A. than Stein. His previous book, based on and titled after his license plate ("Dreemz," remember?) celebrated the glories of the flesh and the wallet that this city of hyped hope still offers in shameless overabundance.
"I love L.A.," he says. "I am very much enamored and infatuated with the way they live their lives out here. Because you know what Washington is like and you know what writers are like; they sit around brooding and being bitter all day. Writers and producers out here are not like that. They just go out and GO, accomplish and get it done. Even if they're not always happy, they're always cheerful, which I admire enormously.
"What I must say to all you bureaucrats out there in Washington full of creative thoughts and ideas is, arise from your desks and come out to L.A., because this is where it's all happening. This is where you can exercise your creative powers to the fullest and get paid for it. Washington is full of smart people, but it's a boring, oppressive environment. 'Come out' -- that's what I keep telling my friends in the East. Hollywood is truly the land of milk and honey. It really is."
Alejandro? More matches, puhleeze.