The hunk's name is Aaron, I learn as I settle down to watch, and he seems likable enough in a boy-next-door-on-steroids kind of way. But I have trouble telling his girlfriends apart.
There's Christi, the fatal attraction girl, who seems to be coming on too strong. There's the one with the cheekbones -- what was her name again? -- who gets to slow-dance onstage at the Hollywood Bowl. There are Heather From Texas and Heather From Somewhere Else, and there is Brooke, the blonde with the plush teddy bear, and I think I hear the names Kyla and Hayley go by. But which is which? Who's that calling Aaron her "knight in shining armor all the way"? Which one prefers candle wax to candlelight behind closed doors? Who is it who says, "Hopefully, Aaron's not a boobs guy, because I can't help him in that department"?
And why have I -- a person who does not, under normal circumstances, watch TV at all -- tuned in to "The Bachelor" anyway?
It's because the Professor of Television told me to.
The thing happened like this: A couple of years ago I was reading a newspaper article about an upcoming Fox show called "Temptation Island." The "reality" trend was newer then, and the idea behind this particular mutation, as you may recall, was to have seductive single types try to destroy the relationships of committed couples. The article relayed some of the predictable criticism the concept had been receiving. Then came a quote from the head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "I'm counting the hours till I can see it," he said, "for good reasons and low."
I couldn't help noticing the guy's name. It was the same as mine.
I clipped the article and filed it away, but I couldn't get over the weirdness of it. Here I was on one extreme of the American television-watching spectrum, someone who had grown up without a TV in the house and had continued his no-hours-a-week viewing habit into adulthood. And here was a guy with my name on the precise opposite extreme -- someone who not only watched TV incessantly, but had devoted a professional lifetime to analyzing and celebrating what he found there.
So one day last fall I called him up. I wanted to do an article, I told him, in which I would try to understand television from his point of view. I would watch TV under his guidance, go to his classes, and generally throw myself at his feet in the hope of gaining a new perspective on what is clearly -- whatever one thinks of it -- America's most influential cultural institution.
He got the concept instantly. "I'll be Virgil to your Dante," he said.
Score one for the Professor. He'd not only read "The Divine Comedy," as I had not, but he'd written an undergraduate thesis on the darn thing. Still, I managed to decode the joke. I knew that Virgil was the Roman poet who served as Dante's personal guide through Hell.
And speaking of eternal punishment . . .
"Ten women, only six roses," the breathless announcer intones. "Who will be sent home brokenhearted?"
"The Bachelor" is dragging on and on. In the preceding episodes, Aaron narrowed the field from 25 to 10. Now, with tonight's competitive dating segments wrapped up, it's time for him to reduce his harem by an additional 40 percent. Bachelorettes are grimacing, wiping their eyes in the bathroom. To them -- as to me -- it must seem like the endlessly hyped "rose ceremony" will never come.
"This evening's gut-wrenching, man," Aaron says. "I've changed my mind four times."
"When you're ready," the master of ceremonies tells him at last.
"Angela," Aaron says. "Angela, will you accept this rose?" She does. Ditto for Gwen, Brooke, Helene, Hayley and Heather From Texas.
Ten women, six roses. The camera zooms in on a tearful, rejected Christi. "I'm not going to be okay," she says.
At this particular moment, I'm not sure I will either. I can't imagine what the Professor of Television could possibly say that would redeem this dreck. As a father of daughters, especially, I'm revolted by the whole meat market scenario. And yet -- I have a confession to make.
I've picked a favorite bachelorette.
She got a rose.
And I'm curious to see just how far she'll go.
'I Never Thought I'd Say This About a TV Show'
"We should keep you pure!" the Professor tells me with a grin. "We may need you at some point."
The two of us have settled in to talk in his fourth-floor office at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications -- books lining one wall, videotapes the other, two small televisions tuned to different channels with the sound off -- and TV Bob, as I've taken to calling him in my head, is riffing on the notion that I'm the kind of endangered species that might prove invaluable to science if you could somehow just keep it from dying out.
A boyishly energetic man of 43, which makes him almost a decade my junior, Robert J. Thompson might well be a candidate for scientific study himself. He has an awesome ability to hold forth indefinitely, on almost any subject, without appearing to pause for breath. This skill, combined with his subject expertise -- his formal title is professor of media and popular culture, which gives him license to talk about much more than just the tube -- has landed him in the Rolodexes of reporters and talk show bookers nationwide. On an average day, he says, he gets six to 12 media calls; his personal high, the day after the final episode of the first "Survivor," in August 2000, was more than 60.
Does Spam have a hip new ad campaign? Is Winona Ryder preempting election coverage? TV Bob can help you parse those trends. Need some thoughts on the cultural significance of coffee? Thompson's your man, though he doesn't drink the stuff himself. One day you'll find him live on MSNBC, responding to a feminist critique of prime-time television. ("We do see all of these shows where these kind of frumpy, failure, ugly, inefficient men are married to these beautiful, efficient, wonderful women," he notes. "We never see that the other way around.") Another day, he may be hosting a crew from a local CBS affiliate, comparing last fall's round-the-clock sniper coverage with TV's treatment of more complex, less telegenic news about the run-up toward war with Iraq.
But his first love remains entertainment television. The relationship began with what he calls a "Leave It to Beaver" childhood in the Chicago suburbs, where his father had a plumbing business and his mother, a nurse, stayed home with the kids. It continued through his teenage years, when his family found common ground in front of the household's lone TV. And it survived his college days at the University of Chicago, where he realized -- after contemplating the rows and rows of art history texts he'd have to master before he could leave his mark on that field -- that television was almost virgin territory for scholars.
He headed off to graduate school at Northwestern, where he soon published a paper titled "Love Boat: High Art on the High Seas." He's a bit embarrassed by this now ("It's not very good; I was a child"), but never mind: It was a shot across the bow of an academic establishment that was disdainful of popular culture in general and television in particular. And it helped launch a lifelong crusade to prove that commercial TV, as the preeminent 20th-century storytelling form, deserved serious study.
My own back story includes at least two similar elements -- a suburban childhood, a stay-at-home mom -- but there the Cleaver parallels end. No "Leave It to Beaver" scenario could accommodate my father, who's about as un-Ward-like as they come. The reason I didn't watch TV as a kid is that he simply refused to buy one. Mainly, he hated the advertising. He had decided, as a young man growing up in the Depression, that Madison Avenue's sole purpose was to siphon money out of his pocket for expensive stuff he didn't need.
People often ask how I survived this deprived childhood, but the truth is, it wasn't hard. I read a lot, which I loved. I got to see a bit of television at other people's houses -- I remember liking "The Defenders" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" -- so I knew what I was missing. Yet while I rebelled against parental authority in plenty of ways, TV watching wasn't one of them. The older I got, in fact, the more I came to respect my father's decision. By the time I had kids of my own, I'd been happily TV-free for nearly 40 years, and I saw no reason to plug my daughters in.
Well, actually, there was one reason. My wife was a network news producer who, for obvious reasons, needed to watch some television at home. But before we had to figure out how to handle this, she had left her TV job, and her two old sets -- with her blessing -- had disappeared into the backs of closets. We didn't miss them, and over the next 11 years, we threw one out and the other rarely emerged.
"So in an average day, you watch zero television?" the Professor asks. We've finished exchanging biographies now, but he's still shaking his head over mine. It's as though I were someone who had forgone not just "Seinfeld" but food, or oxygen.
But of course, I'm not television-free anymore.
When I first phoned TV Bob, he gave me an initial assignment. I was to watch "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos" -- starting with the first season, on video -- and "The Bachelor." The idea was to expose me to the best two shows on TV today, at least by conventional artistic standards, as well as to something lower down the food chain that he nonetheless found of interest.
Dutifully, I plunged right in.
"Gee, I never thought I'd say this about a TV show, but this sounds kind of stupid," Homer Simpson remarked, a few minutes into the first "Simpsons" episode I'd ever seen. (Fortunately for the novice television watcher, Channel 5 recycles two episodes a day beginning at 6 p.m.) Homer was referring to a show-within-a-show, called "Police Cops," which, as he was soon to discover, starred a handsome, street-smart detective named . . . Homer Simpson.
Later, I was to learn from TV Bob that it's routine for high-grade television shows to diss their own medium; TV's reputation for mindlessness is so pervasive that any production with pretensions to quality has to distance itself somehow. But for now, I was just a newly minted "Simpsons" fan along for the ride as Homer complained to the studio bosses about identity theft, got a quick lesson in television authorship ("The 15 of us began with a singular vision"), had his real personality ripped off and mocked in a revised version of "Police Cops" and fought back -- to hilarious effect -- by changing his name to Max Power.
The next "Simpsons" was funny, too. Mild-mannered Marge turned into a crazed SUV driver, wreaking havoc on the roadways and ending up in a duel with an escaped rhinoceros. It's true that I was starting to have reservations about the smutty jokes -- the thing was airing so early that pre-K viewership was probably significant -- but all in all, I was having a pretty good time. So I decided to keep going and watch "Friends," which was the very first show my girls mentioned when I asked what TV their sixth- and seventh-grade pals talked about.
It turned out to be about a dorky college professor having an affair with a beautiful young student, ho ho ho, who groped him in his office, hee hee hee, and then bought herself a teeny-weeny bikini for spring break, heh heh heh, which made the dorky professor jealous, especially after one of his gal pals informed him that "spring break is doing frat guys," hah hah hah . . .
Aiee! I didn't run screaming from the room, but the impulse was there.
The next night was my date with "The Bachelor." Halfway through, I was ready to give the whole project up.
I stuck with it, though. Even got up the next morning to watch bachelorette Christi, the rejected basket case, do "Good Morning, America." The good news is, she is okay. Though her advice to a beloved niece, extracted by the smarmy ABC interviewer, might just as well have been directed at the network itself:
"Don't do shows like this," she said.
A couple of days later, I watched the first "Sopranos" episode on videotape.
Then I rewound it and watched it again.
I wanted to see if I might somehow have been mistaken about how extremely good it was.
'We're Completely Headed in the Wrong Direction'
"Mother, father, I have something to tell you -- something quite important! . . . I am going to be an engineer!"
Betty's excited teenage voice echoes through the Syracuse auditorium where TV Bob is teaching a course called "Critical Perspectives: Electronic Media and Film." More than a hundred undergraduates have turned out on this Wednesday evening in mid-November to hear him deconstruct "Father Knows Best."
"I love this," the Professor says as the soundtrack provides a musical "uh-oh" after Betty's line. "The very fact that a woman would want to be an engineer merits a wah, wah-wah-wah-WAH-wah-wah, WAH wah."
Fifteen years ago, not long after he got his PhD, the idea of teaching television to college students was new enough that "60 Minutes" sent a film crew to do a raised-eyebrow segment on the subject. Much of the skepticism, then as now, had to do with the argument -- advanced by TV Bob and his peers -- that TV shows are "art," deserving of a place in the same curriculum with the likes of Shakespeare and Dante. But while the TV-as-art question is an interesting one, and more complex than it may appear at first glance, it's also a red herring; you can ignore it completely and still find good reasons to study the tube. In fact, if there's one thing the Professor and I have agreed on from the start, it's this: You can't understand post-World War II America without it.
Tonight's lecture is a case in point. Few things in American life have changed more over the past half-century than the role of women. And that change can be tracked and analyzed by looking at the way it got reflected on television.
The "Father Knows Best" episode we're watching dates from 1956, and it unfolds as follows: Betty signs up for a school-sponsored internship with a surveying crew, disguising her gender by using her initials, then dashes home to tell her family about her career choice. Her parents and siblings alternately ridicule and ignore her -- her mother keeps trying to change the subject to a new dress she's just bought her -- but she perseveres. The surveyors treat "B.J." as a freak and eventually send her storming home, but even then she doesn't give up; she buries her head in engineering books and ignores her family's pleas that she return to "normal."
Betty is the butt of every joke, but so far, she seems to be holding her own. Indeed, as TV Bob tells his students, it's almost as though she's "foreshadowing a whole new way of doing things." But because this was on network television -- which never leads but only follows -- "it ultimately has to be very protective of the status quo." In other words, "Betty had to be put down."
Sure enough, the doorbell rings and in comes a handsome college kid from the surveying crew, who delivers an impassioned speech to Betty's father. Girls may be smart enough to be engineers, he says, but if they started actually being engineers, it would be a "dirty trick" on all those guys who work hard all day and want to "come home to some nice pretty wife." Dear old Dad says he couldn't agree more. And Betty -- who should, at this point, be smacking these two jerks upside the head with her thickest engineering text -- throws on her new dress instead and sweet-talks the guy into asking her for a date.
Compare this with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which debuted in 1970, a mere 14 years after "Betty, Girl Engineer" first aired. Moore's character was a smart, single woman with a successful professional career who, as viewers learned if they watched really carefully, had an active enough sex life to be using birth control pills. Never mind that all this seems utterly tame today: It was path-breaking in its time. What's more, the Professor tells me, it was part of a wider television revolution, the biggest in broadcasting history, which went way beyond just the portrayal of women.
To explain, we've got to back up a bit.
In addition to sitting in on the Professor's classes, I've been spending a lot of time in his office watching old television. Given my horrifying ignorance of the medium, he's volunteered to give me a condensed version of his basic TV history course, which he isn't teaching this semester. And I've got to admit, it's been fun.
I've chuckled though "Burns & Allen" and "I Love Lucy," including the episode in which Lucy miraculously gives birth despite the fact that she's not allowed to use the word "pregnant" on the air.
I've tapped my foot to Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and noted how Sullivan domesticates the scarily sexual King of Rock-and-Roll for the show's older viewers by talking about what a "decent, fine boy" he is. (A few weeks later, I stumble across the hate-spewing hip-hop deity Eminem on "Dateline," talking about his love for his sweet 6-year-old daughter, and think: I've seen this movie before.)
I've taken in the first episode of "Gunsmoke," introduced by John Wayne, in which Marshal Dillon gets his man even though he's honor-bound to wait for the bad guy to draw first. ("Showdown: Iraq," shouts the headline on CNN when the "Gunsmoke" tape ends and the TV kicks back on.)
And I've seen a sweet, nostalgic episode of "The Andy Griffith Show," set in the fictional town of Mayberry. TV Bob loves "Andy Griffith" more than any other television from the 1960s. He thinks it was brilliantly made, and he has fond memories of watching it as a boy. Nonetheless, as he points out, there's something more than a little strange about this show.
It's set in North Carolina. Race is never mentioned. And there's not a single black person in sight.
"The hubris of the whole thing" is what's so astonishing, he says. "I mean, if you're going to tell a story about an Edenic little town, and you're going to start it in 1960 -- you know, we've already had Brown v. Board of Education, we've already had Central High School!"
"Andy Griffith" turns out to be far from the only 1960s show with its head in the sand. Almost the whole prime-time entertainment lineup, right up through 1969, existed in a kind of parallel universe in which the real-world upheavals that defined the era -- civil rights, the war in Southeast Asia, the youth movement, the women's movement -- were mysteriously rendered invisible.
There was "Gomer Pyle, USMC," a show about the Marines that never mentioned Vietnam. There were westerns like "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke," and sitcoms like "Green Acres," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "My Three Sons." There were "The Dean Martin Show" and "The Red Skelton Show," and there was "Bewitched," in which a beautiful woman with supernatural powers tries to renounce them, at her husband's insistence, in order to be a normal suburban housewife.
When the Professor screens television from this era for his students, he likes to cut back and forth between these prime-time fantasies and a couple of documentaries -- "Eyes on the Prize" and "CBS Reports: 1968" -- that give them an idea what was really going on.
Then he explains what happened next.
Toward the end of the 1960s, executives at CBS, which was then the top-rated network, looked at the demographics of its many hit shows, which were trending older and older, and they looked at where the popular culture seemed to be going, and they thought, "We're completely headed in the wrong direction." So they made a radical decision. As the 1970s began, they canceled smash hits like "Gomer Pyle," "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," and they replaced them with a startling new breed of socially "relevant" programs such as "Mary Tyler Moore," "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H," all of which became smash hits in their turn.
To look at these shows today, out of context, is to wonder what all the fuss was about. "Mary Tyler Moore" is hardly radical feminism. Next to Bart Simpson, Archie Bunker sounds like a choirboy. "M*A*S*H" didn't even have the courage of its antiwar convictions: It was set in Korea, not Vietnam. And yet, as I listen to TV Bob describe the changes those CBS executives ushered in -- he compares them to an earthquake caused by the shifting of a culture's tectonic plates -- I find myself nodding my head. I remember, from my own experience as a college student in those days, the vivid sense that there really were two cultures in America, and that no one knew what the resolution of their conflict would be.
Yet as an older, wiser and more cynical person, I can also see a less uplifting story line. It goes like this. Briefly, astonishingly, for better or for worse, a whole generation of Americans threatened to shake themselves free from the cultural mainstream. And from that mainstream could soon be heard an anguished cry:
How are we gonna sell 'em cars and cola and shampoo and fast food and soap?
'He's Not an Icon You See Every Day'
Dear reader, please don't put this magazine down! We'll be back to our exciting story in a moment! Still to come: TV Bob names the Best Television Series Ever! Non-TV-Bob discovers "Elimidate"! Both Bobs confront the Ultimate TV Question! But first, a word about . . .
How can I describe the impact, on a neophyte TV consumer, of the hundreds and hundreds of commercials I've sat through in recent weeks? To even begin to replicate my experience, I'd have to interrupt this story, oh, every three or four paragraphs with italicized blather about cell phones, Viagra, fajitas, upcoming TV shows or -- whatever.
T-Mobile will make sexy girls invite you to Venice -- check it out! Rafael Palmeiro uses it for sex -- check it out! Taco Bell will make sexy girls think you're cool -- check it out! "Fastlane" will show you sexy people with guns and lots of stuff blowing up -- check it out!
In the past, whenever I violated my personal no-TV rule -- mostly at World Series time -- I'd often find myself staring at the commercials, stunned. Sometimes it was just the speed of the cutting that got to me: I wasn't used to this stuff, and could barely follow the images as they flashed by. Sometimes it was the ingenuity: The average prime-time commercial looks to have had way more talent applied to its construction than, say, the average family sitcom. Most often, however, it was the content that astonished me.
A few years ago, when the girls were maybe 7 and 8, I thought it would be only fair to let them see a bit of the Series, too. Then I turned on a game and saw promo after promo for some show about shrieking women running down dark corridors with huge guns pointed at them.
The most horrifying ads on television, it turns out, are the ones for television itself. "When Parents Are Accused of Murdering Their Child!" they scream. "Suicide Bombers Are Loose in America!" "A Killer With a Taste for Brains!" "The Man Was Raped!" "Nannies Who'd Kill!" "A Little Boy Witnesses a Murder, and Now -- They Want Him Dead!"
But horror comes in other flavors, too.
Take the ubiquitous SUV ads, with their macho fantasies of dominating the natural world. On the tube, SUVs scale sheer cliffs and float on clouds. They give you "one hundred percent freedom." You can vroom with wolves, zoom through deserts, slalom across snowfields and -- climb Mount Everest? Is that really Sir Edmund Hillary on my screen, flacking the Toyota 4Runner?
Yes, indeed. "He's not an icon you see every day," a proud Toyota marketer once explained.
Nothing is sacred, however, when there's product to move. Religion? Hey, let's use monks chanting for the glory of God to sell Pepsi Blue. Individualism? Tell the suckers they'll be unique if they just choose the right bank card. Motherhood? You can measure its value in carats. Intelligence? If we make jokes about advertising -- in our very own ads! -- we can hook all those hipsters who think irony makes them immune.
Are you kidding?
Cue the shot of the naked blonde in the shower. "I use Herbal Essences shampoo," she breathes, as the orgasm begins. "Ohhhh, that smells good. You see I'm into herbs and botan-an-AN-icals like angelica and marigo-oh-OLD to revi-I-I-talize OHHHH!! -- naturally, of course -- every hair on my hea-ea-EAD! Yes! Yes! YESSSS!!!"
I don't mean to sound like a prude here. Sure, the tube overflows with suggestive sexual messages, and yes, yes, YES, they can be problematic, especially for children. But I remain my father's son, and I still think the most damaging suggestion on television, for kids and adults alike, is that you can satisfy every last one of your desires -- and eliminate every insecurity known to personkind -- by buying stuff.
I'm watching TV pretty steadily now, between work on another project and visits to Syracuse. I'm trying to look at the shows the Professor has talked to me about, plus a few I just stumble onto. I see enough of "The Simpsons" for the Homer as Everyboob shtick to start wearing thin. I force myself to watch more "Friends" -- having learned to my amazement that it's the No. 2 show in America -- but I'll spare you the episode where Monica hires Chandler a hooker by mistake. I also check out "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the No. 1 show. It offers lingering close-ups of a murdered coed tied up in a plastic bag, an excruciating on-camera execution and bursts of dialogue that manage to be both leaden and grotesquely snappy at the same time. TV Bob says he's clueless about the source of its appeal.
I tape a couple more episodes of "The Bachelor," but while I know from outside sources that my fave is still hanging in there, I somehow never find the time to watch. Ditto with "The West Wing" -- after 17 years in Washington, I've seen more than enough of the power game, and have no appetite for the Hollywood version. But I do get through "Seinfeld," "ER," "Will & Grace," "Boston Public," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Bernie Mac," "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," "Letterman," "NYPD Blue," a bit of "24" -- I bail when the hero shoots a guy he's been questioning, then demands a hacksaw with which to cut off his head -- and much, much more. The bottom line: Nothing is keeping me glued to the screen.
Nothing but Tony Soprano, that is.
'Even a Mob Guy Couldn't Take It Anymore'
"There are, like, three different thematic things happening all at the same time here," the Professor is saying. We're back in his office, watching the big guy with the cigar pull up to a tollbooth on the New Jersey Turnpike as a videotaped episode of "The Sopranos" begins. "On one level, this could be any schlub's commute, complete with the minutiae of the ticket." But then "this other stuff starts happening."
He's off and riffing now. He notes the way the opening title sequence cuts back and forth between "the absolute ugly urban wasteland that New Jersey has become" and "these great icons like the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center" that rise from the toxic landscape. (We're back in season one, so the towers are still standing.) He points out that Tony, as he makes his everyman's drive home, has also "reenacted the generational history of the mob" -- passing, in a few quick cuts, from the immigrant first generation (the Statue of Liberty) through the low-rent second (toxic Jersey) and on to the big house in the suburbs. And he explains the genius of centering what is, ultimately, a fairly grim domestic drama around a Mafia capo.
"You could never do a family sitcom as gritty as this," he says, "because it would be too depressing. Nobody would watch it. And the irony is that these horrible whacking scenes and mob scenes are actually the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of the really horrible scenes -- which is the rest of his family life -- go down."
The broader context of our discussion here is that old conundrum: Is television art? By now, I'm fully prepared to grant "The Sopranos" this exalted status -- in fact, I'm more than a little embarrassed about being the last person in America to discover the show. Yet it's also true that the thing has the deck stacked in its favor. A "Sopranos" season includes far fewer episodes than a normal series does, so there's more time to get them right. Plus, it's on a premium pay cable service that carries no advertising, so you don't get those jarring cuts to McDonald's Dollar Menu ads. As TV Bob himself points out, the slogan "It's not television -- it's HBO" was adopted for good reason.
The Professor offers two different ways to look at the is-it-art question, one of which, rude though this may be, I'm going to dismiss out of hand. This is the notion that the success of "art" can be judged only in relation to the demands of its medium. Making television is like writing a sonnet, the argument goes: The artist must work within a highly restrictive form. And since TV requires not only a story line that can be interrupted regularly for commercials but one that people can absorb with perhaps a third of their hearts and minds engaged -- because, as is well known, most of us watch television while doing a variety of other things -- then even a show like "The Love Boat" can qualify as an artistic success.
I'm not going there. Call it good craftsmanship, if you want. But art requires higher aspirations.
The second, more conventional way to approach the question requires more subjective judgments. Should "The Simpsons" be mentioned in the same breath with Mark Twain? TV Bob says yes and I say no, but it's not an unreasonable question; both offer social satire with a sharp eye for the absurd. Can a television series match the artistic quality of great cinema, allowing for the different narrative challenges each medium presents? I don't see any theoretical reason why it can't.
Practical reasons are another story, however.
The history of television's artistic aspirations starts to get really interesting in the 1980s, as the Professor writes in Television's Second Golden Age. For a variety of reasons -- among them the advent of cable, which expanded viewer choices and thus drove down the percentage of the total audience required to make a show a hit, combined with advertisers' increased focus on reaching young, upscale consumers -- an ambitious new generation of network television dramas began to make the scene. "Hill Street Blues" was the groundbreaker, to be followed by the likes of "L.A. Law," "thirtysomething," "Cagney & Lacey," "Moonlighting" and "China Beach." TV Bob's personal favorite was the relatively obscure "St. Elsewhere," a medical drama set in a decaying Boston hospital. It's his candidate for Best TV Series Ever Made, and not only because he's working on a book about it.
"It really used the serial form," he tells his students one night in class, and to illustrate, he shows them a scene in which a minor character from the show's first season resurfaces, to good effect, four years later. Prime-time TV, he explains, had long ignored an advantage that the daytime soaps had always exploited: series television's ability to be "hyper-novelistic," to spin longer, more complex narrative webs than even the novel itself.
I can't go back and watch all 137 episodes of "St. Elsewhere," which is what the Professor says I'd have to do to really understand, but I do get through eight of its greatest hits. They're way better than the current TV I've been watching, "The Sopranos" always excepted, though I find them disturbingly uneven. The very best is a two-part episode built around several layers of flashback, each presented using the film technology of its time. (Scenes from the 1930s are in black-and-white, for example, and those from the '50s in relatively crude color.) The thing is skillfully done, and even with my sketchy knowledge of the major characters, I can see how the flashbacks add depth and complexity to their portraits -- and to the overarching narrative of the hospital itself.
Yet the level of depth and complexity I'm praising here, as I realize when I stop to think about it, is something the average novel accomplishes as a matter of course. And it doesn't come close to what a director like Robert Altman can layer into a film.
Television is still in its relative infancy, as TV Bob points out, and perhaps it's not fair to judge it until it's had another century or so to work out the storytelling kinks. From what I've been seeing, however, it's not being given many chances to do so. There are formulas more reliably profitable than serial drama with complex characters: Witness "Law & Order," "CSI" and "Survivor: Thailand," not to mention "The Jerry Springer Show" and "WWE SmackDown."
I find myself getting fond of "American Dreams," a surprisingly nuanced new NBC series built around boomer nostalgia. When I finally spend an hour with "The West Wing," I like it better than I'd expected, though my reaction has less to do with its artfulness than with a wildly implausible story line about an idealistic president who destroys a debate opponent by denouncing the politics of sound bites. But on the quality front, even It's-Not-TV TV doesn't have much to add. True, I've heard good things about "Six Feet Under," which I never manage to catch, but I do drop in on two other HBO offerings, "The Mind of the Married Man" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The former is a tedious drama about adultery. The latter asks us to care about a whiny, self-absorbed Hollywood type playing himself.
Bleagh. Give me a mob boss in therapy, anytime.
"The Sopranos," as I discover while making my way through the first season, has the same problem all TV serials face: It's got to change, but it can't change too much. In other words, it has to somehow develop character and advance the plot without destroying the basic framework of relationships that keeps the show going year after year. This explains why it takes Carmela Soprano, who is no fool, way too long to confront her husband about his compulsive infidelity and why the short-fused, boneheaded Christopher Moltisanti is still walking the north Jersey streets. With both the feds and his justifiably annoyed fellow mobsters gunning for him, there's no way Tony's idiot protege would last a week unless the screenwriters were under strict orders to keep him around.
Yet it's easy enough to suspend disbelief about these and other implausibilities, because the rewards -- subtle acting, lavish attention to detail, and the kind of dense, textured storytelling you carry around in your head for days, the way you do an engaging novel -- are so great.
Never mind the graphic sex and violence (though you definitely don't want your 10-year-old to watch), and never mind the Mafia stuff. You can read "The Sopranos," the Professor suggests, as a variation on James Thurber's immortal Walter Mitty tale -- Tony's not really a mobster, he's an accountant imagining that he's a mobster -- and almost nothing is lost. Because at its core, the show is about a middle-aged American everyman attempting to protect his family from the poisonous culture that surrounds them while simultaneously grappling, at least halfheartedly, with the inherent contradictions in his own life.
Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.
Maybe it's because I'm feeling guilty about my "Sopranos" habit, but I find myself cheered when I read an article co-authored by TV Bob that quotes some things the show's creator, David Chase, has told interviewers over the years. Chase loathes network television, which he sees as "propaganda for the corporate state -- the programming, not only the commercials." And he explains how he came up with his show's core conceit, having Tony see a psychiatrist: "The kernel of the joke, of the essential joke, was that life in America had gotten so savage, selfish -- basically selfish -- that even a mob guy couldn't take it anymore."
I can't help but smile, too, as I notice the title on an episode from the current season. It's the one where Christopher's girlfriend latches onto the erroneous notion that if only they were married, she could never be forced to testify against him.
"Watching Too Much Television," it's called.
'I'm a Dog. What's Your Excuse?'
There's no doubt in my mind by now: I've been watching too much television myself. My family is starting to look at me funny when I retreat to my tube-equipped study. "Have a happy day, TV addict," my elder daughter says cheerfully one morning as she heads off to school.
Except, except . . .
There's just so much television out there these days, and really, I've watched so little. I feel insecure about judging this vast educational and entertainment medium without sampling a bit of everything. I haven't watched much on PBS, for example (though I did catch one "Sesame Street" segment the point of which was that -- guess what, kids! -- it's fun to play fantasy games that don't involve TV). In particular, I feel that I haven't done justice to the wide, wide world of cable. We don't have it at home -- installing it was a sacrifice we weren't prepared to make for the sake of a magazine article -- so I spend every spare moment in my cable-rich Syracuse hotel room, including more than a few during which I should be sleeping, wielding the clicker.
Here's some of what I see: People talking earnestly about "pet jealousy." A segment about stupid team mascots on ESPN. A man asking me to "prayerfully consider" the purchase of a tape called "Healing for the Angry Heart," available this week only. A series of interviews about the making of "Dallas." Terrified, screaming girls on the ABC Family channel. A woman in labor trying to push out her baby -- "like you're trying to poop!" exhorts a doctor -- followed by a commercial for Toys R Us. Phyllis Diller talking fondly about Rod McKuen. A news report on a survey in which many parents say they're doing a poor job of teaching their kids values and character and about 25 percent say they've seriously thought of getting rid of their televisions. A blues singer moaning, "Gonna buy me a Mercury." A shaggy mutt puffing on a cigarette ("I'm a dog. What's your excuse?"). Charlie Rose interviewing Mick Jagger. "Porn-Star Pretzel" on Comedy Central. The climax of Francis Coppola's "The Godfather," in which Michael Corleone orchestrates the simultaneous assassination of all his mob enemies while assuring the priest at his nephew's christening that yes, he renounces Satan.
I devote an hour or so exclusively to MTV, during which time I see one moderately clever music video that parodies the O.J. Simpson trial and a whole bunch of not very clever music videos in which hot young men shout and strut and hot young women shake booty. I also see a segment of "The Real World" -- the Professor has told me that this granddaddy of all reality shows is "catnip" to the 11- and 12-year-old set -- in which the cast mostly sits around talking about sex. "It looked like a third leg," a young woman exclaims, referring to a male roommate who's been flaunting his aroused state.
The low point of my cable experience, however -- the moment that makes me want to turn one of Tony Soprano's hit men loose on those responsible, just as Tony himself almost did with his daughter's child-molesting soccer coach -- occurs when I stumble onto Howard Stern and his entourage deciding which of two contestants should get free breast implants. One after the other, the sad-faced women remove their shirts for Howie and the gang, who proceed to evaluate their bodies as if they were assessing sides of pork at Satriale's.
There are days when it seems to me that every single show I watch begins with a breast joke, though careful examination of my notes shows that there's always an exception, such as the episode of "Still Standing" that begins with a guy in his underwear holding a raw hot dog at waist level. Yes, I admit it, I laugh when Homer Simpson -- who's playing out an old hippie fantasy -- begs Marge to go braless ("Free the Springfield Two!"). But if I were to tally up the score for an average week, I'm guessing the results would be something like: Crudely Offensive 4,012, Funny 2. And this is before I've even heard of "Elimidate," a low-rent version of "The Bachelor" in which our hero starts out with four women and, half an hour later, swaggers off with one on his arm. (Occasionally the roles are reversed.) In the episode I watch, the guy's first move is to ask his would-be paramours to remove their tops so he can inspect the merchandise.
How did this happen? How did we get from "Leave It to Beaver" to all breast jokes, all the time? As usual, the Professor is a font of helpful information.
Step one, he says, came with the success of "All in the Family," which, in addition to introducing socially relevant topics like racial tension, broke long-standing taboos against mild cursing, racial epithets and the depiction of previously forbidden bodily functions. When Archie Bunker used the toilet -- off camera, no less -- it was a historic first that TV Bob calls "the flush heard round the world." Lesser programs soon followed suit. By the end of the '70s, "jiggle" sitcoms like "Three's Company," a nudge-nudge, wink-wink exercise in voyeurism and sexual innuendo, were outraging numerous television observers, despite the fact that by today's standards, they might as well have been "The Donna Reed Show."
A decade after "All in the Family," in 1981, "Hill Street Blues" brought a major escalation on the adult-content front (though its tough, street-smart detectives were still reduced to hurling epithets like "dirtbag" and "hairball"). Again, other shows rushed to imitate the successful innovator: first the 1980s "quality" shows, which saw taboo-busting as one way to distinguish themselves from ordinary television, and then, seemingly minutes later, ordinary television itself. The trend was heavily reinforced as cable -- a less-restrictive environment from the start -- became increasingly competitive.
As I absorb all this, it occurs to me that a weird cultural flip-flop has taken place. If TV used to be a parallel universe because of what it left out, it has now become a parallel universe because of what it allows. The crass verbal and visual assaults on women that pollute the tube, for example, would never be tolerated in the average American workplace. I try this theory out on TV Bob, carelessly dropping the loaded phrase "sexual harassment," and he responds immediately with the First Amendment slippery slope argument (if we ban
X kind of free expression, who's to say
Y won't follow?). He's so used to trotting out this defense for television transgressions, in fact, that it takes him a minute to understand that I agree with him.
I'm not talking about censorship. I'm just laying out another reason to keep the set unplugged.
The misunderstanding is unusual. The Professor and I are pretty comfortable with each other by now, and we've come to respect each other's point of view. He still marvels at the fact that, unlike most of the TV bashers he encounters, I actually don't watch television. I, in turn, admire his refusal to hide behind his Professor of Television status. He's been careful to say, repeatedly, that he tunes in shows such as "The Bachelor" not just because he needs to check them out professionally, but also because he likes them.
So I take it seriously when he makes a counterargument on the harassing environment front. Think about the "Father Knows Best" era and all it entailed, he says, then look at what we've got now -- MTV, breast jokes and women playing tough cops, doctors and lawyers all included -- and ask yourself: Which would you prefer? Even "Charlie's Angels," denounced by many as the sexist nadir of the jiggle era, carries a more complicated message, he points out: It's also remembered fondly, by some women, as the first time they got to see their sex kick butt on television.
I'm not quite ready to concede the point -- heck, we haven't even gotten to "Ally McBeal" -- but I am ready to draw a sweeping conclusion about the bizarre gender stew on television today: Women's role in American society is a whole lot different than it was 50 years ago. But some of us are having a really hard time adjusting.
All this time, the Professor and I have been dancing around the fundamental premise underlying our conversation: our radically different personal decisions about the tube. TV Bob says several times that he hopes I won't keep watching after the story is over, because if I do, he'll feel as though he's corrupted me. I tell him he shouldn't worry. Even after his highly enjoyable tutorial on television's merits, both as a storytelling medium and as a window on the culture in which we all live and breathe, I expect to stick with my original decision. I still see TV -- taken as a whole -- as something that my family and I are better off without.
I understand perfectly well that, for a variety of utterly reasonable reasons, most people will continue to disagree with me on this. I've never dreamed that the Professor and I, in particular, could ever come to a meeting of the minds. So I'm truly startled when he formulates what I've come to think of as the Ultimate TV Hypothetical.
If you could go back in time, he says, and somehow ensure that nuclear weapons were never invented, that's something you'd almost certainly want to do. But what if you could perform the same historical conjuring trick with television and simply erase it before it could enter our lives? Would you choose to do that as well?
He doesn't know the answer.
"That, to me, is a really difficult question," he says.
'It's Able to Penetrate Everything'
Speaking of difficult questions: Tonight's the big night, and what is the Bachelor going to do?
It's a few weeks after the Professor left his cosmic hypothetical hanging, and I'm hunched in front of the tube again, gearing up for the grand finale. I was dismayed to learn that it will take Aaron two hours, not one, to make up his mind. But how can I begrudge what seems like about 900 ads for Glad Bags, TV dinners, genital herpes remedies and upcoming ABC programming ("Friends don't let friends miss 'Dinotopia'!") when I'll soon be rewarded by seeing the big fella get down on bended knee and propose to --
Helene! My favorite! The one I picked all those many weeks ago!
I click off the set and head down the hall to tell my wife the big news, complete with my theory -- based on careful textual analysis -- that Aaron actually made up his mind long ago. I explain about the note he gave Helene with his cell phone number on it, and the way he treated Gwen and Brooke on their weekend dates, and . . .
She gives me a look and tells me my brain has gone soft as a grape. Right then I decide that there's no way I'll be watching "The Bachelorette," the role-reversing sequel that picks up where "The Bachelor" left off, despite the juicy opportunities for cultural analysis it will present.
Total television withdrawal, however, won't prove quite so easy as that.
For one thing, while I've finished the first season of "The Sopranos," I'm sorely tempted to keep trotting down to the video store for more. How can I judge the show, I tell myself, if I haven't seen it all? For another thing, I'm still tuning in to "American Dreams" on Sunday nights. And why not? Don't I have a professional duty to find out what happens with Luke and Meg?
The scariest moment comes just after my last talk with TV Bob. At 7 a.m., still groggy and exhausted, I grope for the television listings in my hotel room and find a rerun of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I've been meaning to watch "Buffy," so I do, and it turns into a near-"Sopranos" experience. Beneath the wacky vampire plot, this episode, at least, is really a laugh-out-loud take on sibling rivalry and the classic teen struggle between freedom and responsibility. Shades of Tony and Carmela and the kids! I could sing its praises at much greater length, but I really should watch a few more episodes first, don't you think?
Yet, as my television research winds down, I find myself plunging happily back into the stack of unread books that sits near my bed. In the end, I never do see any more vampires slain -- in part because I suspect that the initial thrill would wear off with overexposure. And before long Buffy is just a fading memory, a casual acquaintance to be looked up, perhaps, the next time I'm in a hotel room without a good book to read.
I'm going to miss my conversations with the Professor, though.
I've taken up way too much of his time already, but I've got one last question to ask. It's his own Ultimate Hypothetical, on which he couldn't make up his mind before -- the one about whether he'd choose to invent TV or not.
He's been thinking about it, he says.
Yes, there are many things about television that he truly loves. But the medium is too young to have produced masterpieces, and the civilized world could get along just fine without "St. Elsewhere," "The Sopranos" and "The Andy Griffith Show." In any case, his professional mission has been less about touting television's glories than about "trying to come to grips with it, to tame it, to somehow bring it into a useful relationship with our life." The adversarial language he's chosen here is no accident, he says. Because the most problematic thing about TV is its invasiveness, its tyrannical domination of our "domestic space."
"What it shares in common with God is omnipresence," he says. "It's always there. It's able to penetrate everything."
So here's his answer: He'd make TV disappear if he could. And never mind that he'd put himself out of a job.
What an odd thing, I think, once I've had time to digest this, that we two Bobs ever pegged ourselves as opposites. For it seems clear that what we share is more important than the ways we disagree. Each of us recognized, early on, the overwhelming influence television can have on our lives. Each shaped an identity by creating an extreme relationship with the tube. And these very different stances put each of us at odds with the majority of Americans, who have chosen -- consciously or unconsciously, willingly or grudgingly -- neither to reject TV nor to closely examine it, but to go with the overpowering cultural flow.
It's late afternoon when we finish our conversation, and the Professor's office is unusually quiet. As he's laid out his reasoning, he's clicked off the small tube that sits directly across from his desk. Now his eyes flicker nervously toward the silenced screen.
"The TV is still off," he says, "and it's really giving me the creeps."
Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.