Every night after I watch the Channel 9 news, I get up from the sofa, march over to the television and either switch channels or turn the set off. This is no idle gesture: This is a deliberate act of protest, usually accompanied by a verbal tirade, about the show that is about to come on.
For those of you who lead saner lives and go to bed early, the show is something called "Couples," which is taking to new limits television's penchant for profiteering off people's willingness to make fools of themselves. At the beginning of the show, the announcer tells you that "there has never been a show like this," and it doesn't take long to figure out why.
This is a sort of Gong Show for the self-indulgent, presided over by a Southern California psychiatrist who specializes in tacky patients with tacky problems that they wouldn't have if they led less tacky existences.
In keeping with the secret code of television programmers--which, I'm convinced, is that nobody ever got fired for underestimating the intelligence (or taste) of the American people--the folks at Channel 9 have decided to dignify "Couples" into a "talk and information" program and inflict it on those of us who are still up late at night. Thus, one evening not too long ago, I was sitting in my living room, reading and listening to the news. The next thing I know, this woman appears on my television screen talking about her husband's inability to handle jealousy.
At first, you might think this is the typical young married couple's problem with jealousy. Then you find it is anything but typical: It turns out that the young woman in question is a nude dancer in a nightclub frequented by her husband's friends.
Does the television shrink say something sensible, like "What the hell do you expect him to feel?"
Of course not. The next thing that happens is the husband comes on and, with the cameras recording every riveting moment, these two people sit in the shrink's office getting in touch with their feelings, when it is perfectly obvious that the wife ought to be getting in touch with an employment agency.
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why anyone would go on a syndicated television show and discuss the kinds of problems that "Couples" unleashes on its viewers. In a set that looks as if it were assembled out of the Sunday furniture inserts, with a shrink who appears to have escaped from a daytime soap with a year's supply of earnestness, people spill out details of their sordid affairs and unsatisfactory lives, all the while holding hands, somehow expecting the rest of the world to be interested. In fact, the only folks who are going to care about these people are 1) the local voyeurs; 2) troubled viewers who are silently thanking the Almighty for giving them the good sense to stay off television shrink shows; and 3) the relatives and close friends of the couple who must henceforth pretend they do not know them.
This is not to say that broadcasting advice has no merit. Dr. Joseph Novello, a child psychiatrist who took calls on WMAL radio from parents and children, probably helped a number of listeners commuting home from work figure out a slightly better way of dealing with the children they were coming home to.
But "Couples" is hardly a show designed to help others work out their problems. I mean, after all, how many men are married to nude dancers who are so dense they can't figure out why their husbands are jealous?
Ed P. Jones, program manager for Channel 9, says the station discovered two years ago that there was an audience for late-night talk and information programming and that the station subsequently developed "After Hours," with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan on Thursday nights. That show, which was consistently worth staying up for, was dropped in March because of low ratings. Then, said Jones, "Couples" came to his attention and the station decided it "flowed very nicely with our programming" and scheduling needs. The reaction, he says, has been both positive and negative, with most of the negative comments being about a specific episode where viewers have felt the doctor "has gone too far. . . bordering on voyeurism or exploring areas that ought to remain in the home and not be discussed on television."
Channel 9 has a long-term contract for the show. "We're convinced that in the final analysis the program will prove to be successful," says Jones.
Perhaps he's right. But in my house at least, the only thing it has succeeded in doing is turning that channel off.