Perhaps appropriately, considering its subject, "Television" is a very entertaining disaster. An eight-part series that zooms clippity-clip through the history of TV, it opts for simple-minded nostalgia over serious insight.
From public television, one would expect more -- naively perhaps, but one would. The PBS series, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 26 and other public TV stations, doesn't analyze the mediocrity of television so much as personify it.
Executive producer Jack Sameth and writer Michael Winship (part of the brain trust behind that sure-fire soporific "Smithsonian World") approach TV in a lazy, hazy, cavalier way, doling out the assembled bromides and platitudes of the past few decades, yet managing in their eight-hour ramble to ignore one of the most influential media observers of all time, Marshall McLuhan.
They also make capricious judgments, like failing to mention "Roots," the most watched mini-series in history and an unprecedented national conscience cleanser, until the last moments of the final show.
Nor, when discussing documentaries, do the producers cite one of the most controversial of all time, "The Selling of the Pentagon," by CBS News. But they did manage to find five long minutes in Part 6 for an extended excerpt from Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective," an admittedly outstanding import, but one that public TV stations aired only weeks ago.
This is part of the series' overall provincialism; it imagines public television as having had a greater significance in American video life than it has.
The series goes global only fitfully, unlike the original 1985 British model, "Television," on which this one is based (it uses much of the British interview material). A viewing of two episodes from the 13-part Granada production suggests it was easily superior to the U.S. copy -- more serious, less glib, better produced all around.
The British series had an actual point of view, and a provocative one; it didn't just say television exists. Production details were superior, too. Granada's "Television" had handsome, imaginative animated titles; the PBS "Television" has cheap, ugly ones. A highly readable, literate book was published in conjunction with Granada's show; an unattractive, photo-stuffed cut-rate book, by the wearying Winship, has been published (by Random House) to accompany the U.S. counterpart.
One more thing: Viewers of "Television" in England did not have to look at Edwin Newman. Their narrator stayed off camera. Newman, anchoring the American version, maintains his usual aura of studied ennui and imparts a contagious sense of couldn't-care- lessness.
The people at PBS have shown thousands of hours of imported British TV over the years. They should have shown 13 more and saved themselves the trouble of producing "Television." One reason they didn't is that most of the American examples in the British show were from CBS and that might have looked awkward.
So they made their own show, but they didn't know what they were doing, and they did a lousy job.
On the other hand -- and it's a big other hand -- since "Television" is wall to wall and floor to ceiling with clips from old TV shows, it is inescapably entertaining. Superficial, but fun. That seems to be what PBS wanted. They're aiming lower these days. Right at their own feet.
And so it all flashes by again -- the mad and the merry, the rich and the poor, the exalting and the demeaning, the historic and the trivial: television, the beast with one eye, the technological inevitability that reworked, reordered and perpetually replays our world.
"Take your hands off me unless you intend to arrest me," barks reporter Dan Rather to surly bouncers at the 1968 Democratic convention.
"This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody," says the NBC newsman at the Republican convention four years earlier, as guards hustle him out.
"Let's get it nailed down, somebody!" shouts ABC's Frank Reynolds after getting conflicting information on the condition of Press Secretary James Brady, injured in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
Walter Cronkite removes his glasses, pauses, swallows hard, and his voice cracks as he tells the nation that John F. Kennedy has died in Dallas.
"Well, I'm not a crook," says Richard Nixon, right into the camera, some years later.
"May we have the Brooklyn Bridge, please?" Edward R. Murrow asks Don Hewitt, later producer of "60 Minutes," as the inaugural broadcast of "See It Now," in 1951, makes it possible for humans to see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously, live, for the first time.
And then there are the words of a British entrepreneur, acerbically congratulating engineers who staged a successful demonstration of a primitive TV system: "Well, gentlemen, you seem to have perfected the biggest time waster of all mankind. I hope you use it well."
This is quoted in Part 3, "The Race for TV," the episode with the highest information quotient and most real value. It is fascinating to learn how many different inventors in different countries were scampering to come up with the first practical TV system. Elma Farnsworth, widow of inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, recalls his telling her, "There's another woman in my life ... Her name is television."
You're zapped back to a time when the word "television," so mundane and unromantic now, had wondrous futuristic reverberations. We didn't know that one of the functions TV would fill would be to fail persistently at living up to its own promise. TV had to be invented so it could do that.
Two programs concentrate on TV news: "The Power of Pictures" and "Point of View." These are the fourth and fifth shows, whereas the producers made sure that "Comedy" appeared the second week. Gotta grab those viewers early! This undoubtedly cheered the program's underwriter, MCI Communications Corp., which has been promoting "Television," and itself, lavishly.
Of course, "Television" is just the kind of thing that would appeal to a funder like MCI. It's big and loud but relentlessly innocuous. "Television" seems less like a series than a charm for a sugar daddy's bracelet.
Over the hours, proper respect is shown the Chicago school of broadcasting (Dave Garroway, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie"), the Golden Age of live drama and comedy ("Playhouse 90," "Mr. Peepers") and, of course, the incomparable power of television to transport us to sites of amazing, epochal events, like a coupla guys bouncing around on the moon.
Television is "a kaleidoscope of images, great and small," says Newman in the introduction, a typical example of Winship's witlessness. But Winship does come up with one wee nifty, the remark that television is "as irresistible as gravity." And perhaps nearly as much, now, a part of life on Earth.
The task of seriously considering television and its myriad effects on the societies that have it is left mostly to PBS commentator Bill Moyers, who laments in Part 8 that commercial broadcasters see TV as merely "a byproduct of the merchandising process." Later, though, he praises public TV because "it assumes the best about the viewer." He might have added, "present program excepted."
But Newman lopes in soon with a justification for mediocrity overtaking public TV just as it has the commercial side. "Increasingly, public TV has realized that there is no sin in combining education with entertainment," he says. One only need read between the words -- indeed, one only need watch the shortsighted and disappointing "Television" -- to see what Ed's driving at.
Some people probably think television is so low and prosaic it cannot be insulted. Well, they're wrong. Even television deserves better than "Television."