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Commentary : Confessions Of A Tv Junkie


Stop the presses!

The latest TV bulletins, unveiling the networks' prime-time schedules, are about to cause a meltdown. Come this fall, say the TV hypesters, we'll be deluged with sitcoms about single-unit families composed of widowers and uniparents. We'll know more than we ever bargained for about crime fighters with maternal instincts.

How nice. But no thanks.

Some of us Newton Minowians didn't watch these timeless gems in their first incarnations. We had (and have) better bets. So why bother now?

Take this culturally upscale animal, for example, who, five years ago, was innocent to the ways of narrow casting and such. Now she doesn't even try to resist what has become The Big Addiction. Now she gladly forsakes all. Surrenders. Becomes an out-and-out TV mainliner. Joins the ranks of turned-on-tubies whose connection is the video switch.

I don't know if there's a study on the millions of us media sophisticates who find bliss within our electronic cocoons, but we're out there, wallowing in the throes of passivity, while at least one of 25 channels beams some potential delight or revelation. We don't decry what was once a vast wasteland. We even smile in secret agreement with those bumper strips that say "Happiness is a night at home."

Don't try to account for us by way of the Nielsen ratings, though. We never watch "Dynasty" or any of the serial dramas or canned laugh-ins that march through prime-time television--most of them are formula-heavy, unimaginative and require too much patience.

No, the serious TV junkie is a cable surfer who devours news, old Fred Astaire movies, documentaries, unscripted interviews and falls into a hypnotic state every time the channel changer lands on a repeat of "Once Upon a Time in America" (long version). She never rents or buys videos. She is a purist.

Remote gadget in hand, propped in bed and peering through my toes at the onerous box (the only deliciously sinful way to do it), I flip around the dial for the serendipity of the moment.

Who cares if the pile of unread New York Review of Books grows higher? I trust that the Hard-Core Intellectuals will keep account of V. S. Naipaul writing on V. S. Pritchett and V. S. Pritchett writing on V. S. Naipaul. Let those who proclaim their independence from the home screen enjoy their asceticism. The rest of us have no trouble at all succumbing to the tubal pleasures of our post-print era.

One recent night--when the local news wasted itself on a dreary litany of murders and fires, when MacNeil/Lehrer stayed dry dock and Dan Rather groveled in soft features--I found a rerun of the terrific documentary featuring pianist Mona Golabek at a women's prison.

There before my unbelieving eyes was a miraculous fusion of sociocultural extremes, the performer and her inmate audience. She came bearing Chopin, Gershwin and herself. Through earnest, personal anecdotes, she involved the prisoners in her struggle to become a woman and a musician. She shared what is elemental. No scriptwriter could ever fabricate what transpired here before the camera. And to think that it just fell into my view was cause for rapture.

"Where else can you get this stuff?" I kept wondering.

Then, after just enough time for a trip to the kitchen cupboard, on came "Notorious," which I promised to watch no more than a few minutes (having seen it twice before). But there was no way to resist the great Ingrid, Cary and Claude--with delectable help from Madame Ouspenskaya--and so the helpless fool hung in there.

A little later came Ted Koppel on "Nightline." His topic, a controversial treatment for autism that resulted in a patient's death, brought its originator face to face with his prime antagonist. As interesting as their testimony was, Koppel, in a particularly surly mood, upstaged rather than moderated--rudely cutting his guests off and even bawling them out.

It reminded me of his similar, unabashed grilling of Geraldine Ferraro during the election campaign, not to be confused with the genuflecting he does in the presence of His Holiness Henry Kissinger and other political pundits. It's amazing how the constant spotlight can erode modesty.

To make me forget about all this nastiness there was the ever-off-the-wall David Letterman who, with an inspired throw to the camera of his rubber-suction-cup darts, wiped away the bad taste of arrogance. For that show he had a wondrous array of nobodies and misfits--all making a perfect foil for his madcap perversity.

As he finished interviewing Bo Derek, in what must have been the most probingly arch encounter of her career, I got ready to wean myself for the night. One last dial search, however, put me smack at the start of a fascinating feature on a Chinese family trying to resist the state's one-child quota and escape the abortionist.

The whole six hours, as a matter of fact, made me feel as over-indulged as a 300-pound binger. I began to envision life as a blissful shut-in. Could it get even worse? And what am I going to do now that the satellite dish is here?

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