IT'S NOT EASY being a TV lover these days. At almost any social gathering, hiding behind every designer beer is a suspendered pinhead who boasts that he doesn't watch much television. You know -- the type whose eyes glaze and begin searching frantically over your shoulder if you so much as mention the words "prime time" or, heaven forbid, "soap opera." Well, my brain atrophies at the mention of prime rates and, heaven forbid, metropolitan operas. The blockheads believe they've discovered an instant IQ test: If you watch TV, you must be a driveling fool. So I've developed an instant personality test: If you refuse to watch TV (and PBS doesn't count), you must be a pompous dolt.
The fact is you don't have to be stupid to love television. A law-school classmate of mine, who billed 3,500 hours last year at his blue-chip Wall Street firm, is equally enthusiastic when discussing the latest couplings on ABC's soaps or the latest arrests on the New York Mets. We both left torts class early every day to be sure to catch the opening of "All My Children," figuring we could learn a lot more about the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A Harvard Law School professor once confessed to me that he was afraid to buy a TV set because he knew if he ever turned in on, he'd never be able to turn it off. Its addictive propensity was painfully obvious to him. After spending a blissful half hour puzzling how Gilligan could possibly manage to avoid escaping that island yet again, the prospect of discussing pendent jurisdiction and vertical integration seemed so mundane.
I remain convinced that the toughest comparative analysis I ever performed in law school was on the evening that "Dynasty" premiered. I stayed up half the night debating whether the Carrington clan had what it took to compete with the Ewing legend. Oh sure, "Dynasty" had its patriarch ensconced in a mansion with all his heirs, but Blake's business deals were so simplistic compared with J.R.'s, and the family dynamics were still unformed. It was truly a fascinating dilemma, with immediacy and complexities far outshadowing those of the hypothetical cases posed in class.
Apparently the rest of the bar didn't share my zeal. A partner in the law firm where I later worked told me it was "unprofessional" to discuss soap opera characters with the "support staff."
Maybe. But wouldn't you rather talk about J.R.'s millions than Junior's mortgage? After all, the dastardly dealings of TV characters are so much more fun to dissect than the shenanigans of even our wealthiest neighbors. It's partially due to the fact that TV offers a rare, unchecked view into the private lives of others, a view usually offered only in litigation. "The People's Court," "Superior Court," "Divorce Court" -- all offer a glimpse into the disputes of ordinary people. But even their appeal pales in comparison to the slavering response to Joan Collins' recent courtroom antics. Because Joan Collins is no ordinary person. She's Alexis Carrington.
We loved watching Collins take the stand to testify in her latest divorce trial against her (latest) husband. We'd seen her do it before -- in Blake Carrington's murder trial -- so we expected a riveting performance. News or fiction, Collins' perfectly made-up face appeared on the same TV screen -- making it increasingly difficult to distinguish Alexis (the character) from Joan (the actress). The TV image has become the reality.
Similarly, some people wonder if jolly Ollie will play himself in the TV movie. Others wonder if he already has. Ollie North gave the daytime soap operas a run for the money. But his high ratings could never have continued. The issues raised by the hearings were altogether too troubling. It's far more pleasant to concern ourselves with the seemingly real problems of imaginary TV characters -- problems whose resolution will have no permanent impact on life as we know it.
So this summer, as visions of the new TV season dance in our heads, the hot topic isn't Oliver North or even Ed Meese. At water coolers everywhere, the questions are the same: Is David "Moonlighting" Addison the father of Maddie Hayes' bound-to-be-born-next-season baby? Will Sam "Cheers" Malone fill his evenings with sexual high jinks now that he's been unleashed by that nitwit Diane Chambers? And did the recently-resurrected Bobby Ewing opt for a little taste of revenge by just dreaming that his wife Pam drove her sports car into a Mack truck?
Enquiring minds want to know. Let's face it: We all want to know. These "people" are our friends. For the last nine years we've spent every Friday night with the Ewings. How many other friends can you say that about?
No wonder the images become reality, even in the minds of educated viewers. Or that the editors of the tabloids treat the characters with all the dignity accorded the "stars" who play them. "Wild Man Willis Drives Neighbors Nuts" screamed one recent headline chronicling the "Moonlighting" star's late-night antics. On the same page in equally eye-catching print were the words: "Pam Divorces Bobby" and "Sam Loses Bar to Sexy New Boss."
But then, to tabloid readers and TV viewers the actors are their characters. When Bobby Ewing died and Patrick Duffy left "Dallas," the international response was unanimous. Ewing wasn't the only one left toes-up in a hospital bed. Duffy was dead, too. At least as far as the audience was concerned.
After seven years of rooting for the cowboy in designer jeans, we weren't about to tolerate Duffy in another role. We couldn't bear to see Bobby's face on someone else's body. Or, even worse, in bed with someone else's body. Actress Lisa Bonet, who plays wholesome "Cosby" daughter Denise Huxtable, made this grievous tactical error. She popped up in the sack with Mickey Rourke while playing a sultry voodo priestess in "Angel Heart," a movie filled with violence and sex. America was outraged. Our little Denise would never behave this way!
The actors themselves don't offer much help to those who still care about drawing a line between fact and fiction. So many of them -- from "Knots Landing's" Ted Shackelford to "Falcon Crest's" Lorenzo Lamas, "Hill Street Blues'" Daniel J. Travanti, "St. Elsewhere's" William Daniels and "L. A. Law's" Michael Tucker -- have brought their on-screen ladies to their off-screen homes.
Even the actors themselves get a little mixed up. Ken Kercheval, who plays Pamela Ewing's brother Cliff Barnes on "Dallas," is continually outraged when people call Cliff a loser. In interview after interview Ken complains that people who call Cliff (not Ken) a loser just don't understand him (Cliff/Ken?) Pee-wee Herman is so confused or so clever that he refuses to give interviews as Paul Reubens. He speaks only as Pee-wee Herman. Except sometimes when he shows up he isn't wearing Pee-wee's makeup or Pee-wee's clothes and he doesn't speak in Pee-wee's voice.
But not all actors are willing to join the fun. Just ask Susan ("She's not a secretary, but she plays one on TV") Ruttan. She's Arnie Becker's faithful filer on "L.A. Law," embraced by the nation's secretaries as a role model. But it makes her a trifle nervous when they ask her to speak about certain topics. At a recent meeting, the sensible Ruttan told an interviewer, "They wanted me to talk about being a secretary. I can only talk about pretending to be a secretary." Maybe she shouldn't be such a party pooper. If millions of people believe Roxanne exists, she does. What's Ruttan got to lose anyway (except her identity)?
And the loyalty of fans. Such as the outraged "Soap Opera Digest" reader who was driven to action by the magazine's choice for the soaps' 10 Most Captivating Couples. "Dallas' J.R. and Sue Ellen?" wrote an incredulous "L.S." of Miami. "He's the world's worst husband and that makes her the world's most stupid woman." I certainly sympathize with L.S.'s frustration and would welcome the opportunity to discuss our mutual friends at a dinner party. In fact, I'd much rather sit at a table full of L.S.s than stand in the same room with another one of the pin-striped pinheads. They're too stupid to know what they're missing. There is no black mood that cannot be lightened or medical problem that cannot be alleviated by an afternoon spent trance-like in front of the soaps.
Yes, the daytime soap operas. Those black sheep of the TV family that are disdained by even "Miami Vice" fans. There's something monumentally comforting in knowing that any day of any year you can tune in to see Erica Kane wreaking havoc in the lives around her as she schemes to sink her claws into her latest lover. The soaps are so dependable: Wars are waged; people die; administrations come and go. But the soaps are always there. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year, the devoted fan can check in and see all the new traumas for those old familiar faces and all those old familiar traumas for all the new faces.
Small wonder, then, that some viewers have a tough time understanding that the characters are actors. Others have grasped the concept, but can't seem to hold on to it. Susan Sarandon once described a fan letter she received after a daytime soap opera she appeared on was canceled. In the show's last episode, Sarandon's much-troubled character was finally married. The fan wrote Sarandon to tell her how sorry she was that the show had been canceled and that Sarandon was out of a job -- particularly now that she had just gotten married and things were finally beginning to work out for her.
Is it real or is it Memorex? Does it matter?
Actors and viewers alike can become totally muddle-headed leaping back and forth from TV to reality. It doesn't mean that all their hopes for a happy, healthy and successful future are dashed. In fact, the pinheads might gain some insight into national politics if they'd simply give the vast wasteland a chance. After all, one of the greatest reality-mixers around is President Reagan, who loves to relate plots of old WWII movies as if the characters in them were actual American heroes. And it hasn't gotten him into any trouble, has it?
Trustman Senger, a 1982 graduate of Harvard Law School, writes on lawyers and television.