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COVER STORY | Stepping Out of Character

Happily surfing the tide in the ocean of junk TV.

July 05, 1998|Christopher Knight | Art Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mind we thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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Conventional wisdom be damned. Cindy Williams was the real comic genius in "Laverne & Shirley," not Penny Marshall.

Marshall mugged, Williams was sly. Her manic ravings over the whereabouts of precious Boo-Boo Kitty, her sloe-eyed stuffed cat, were funny in a coarse, buffoonish sort of way, but they also performed a useful cultural service. The security blanket, beloved of Americans thanks to the popularity of little Schroeder on the comics page, was effortlessly transformed into a baby-boomer icon appropriate to life's next stage: extended adolescence. And what is television if not the medium of, by and for the distinctly modern phenomenon of extended adolescence?

Junk TV is the venerable category in which I'd happily place "Laverne & Shirley," which had its debut in 1975. Their pratfall-laden escapades, based on the perpetually squabbling love/hate relationship between Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance that had unfolded with huge success over the previous 25 years, revived (and redecorated) characters Ball had retired a year before "Laverne & Shirley" hit the airwaves. Cannibalizing the success of predecessors is a staple of junk TV.

Today's daily talk shows are cannibalism's current best example. Mike Douglas begat Phil Donahue, who begat Oprah Winfrey, who begat Sally-Jerry-Jenny-Montel. Then, Rosie O'Donnell went back to the source, and started doing Mike Douglas again. Like amateur gene-splicing, each permutation gets just a little bit weirder.

Junk TV gets blamed for lots of America's social ills, and always has. The blame game is just another staple. Remember FCC Chairman Newton Minow and his famous 1961 speech about television's "vast wasteland"? The implication was that prolonged exposure would make viewers equally vacant.

Back then, there were only three networks, plus a few local outlets. Now, the wasteland is considerably more vast, thanks to the explosion of cable and satellite technologies. With more than 60 channels on my basic cable service, most available 24 hours a day, that's in excess of a half-million hours of program time to fill every year. TV's vastly more vast landscape today has something of the stark, austere grandeur of Death Valley.

Only a fool would expect all Aristophanes, all day. And frankly, all Aristophanes--or all anything--is not a pretty thought. Depending on the show, junk TV may or may not provide sustenance of an intellectual, spiritual or emotional sort, but its main appeal, like the appeal of junk food, lies precisely in the delicious emptiness of its calories.

I take my TV seriously--just not the programming. After all, American television was not designed to deliver programs. Television, as artist Richard Serra pointed out nearly 30 years ago, was designed to deliver people. The commercial product sold by TV isn't soap or soup, it's you, the demographically profiled viewer. You get sold to the advertiser, touted as a potential watcher of his sales pitch. Programming is just the worm with which to bait that commercial hook.

The worminess of junk TV reached a millenial watershed on Nov. 7, 1994, when Judge Lance Ito ruled that a television camera could remain in the courtroom during the celebrity murder trial of Orenthal James Simpson. Unwittingly, Ito had set two incompatible art forms on a collision course--and, sure enough, a wreck ensued.

Here's why: America's court system dates to the 18th century; structurally, it's a species of live theater. For those without a seat at the show, another 18th century medium--namely, newspapers--offer descriptive images provided by live members of the courtroom audience. Anybody who's been to the theater knows how radically different an experience it is from watching TV. Suddenly, with Ito as Oprah, all-powerful host and producer of a TV show, and with lawyers as actors in a daily miniseries, travesty was inevitable.

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