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First Person

TV or Not TV: Battles With the Beast

Brought to His Knees by the Relentless Offense of Montel Williams, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy

November 09, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plans, big plans. I had lots of them as I hobbled home after reconstructive knee surgery to begin a two-week stay on my living room couch.

I'd dreaded this "vacation," but, with nothing except painkillers and time on my hands, I was going to make the most of it. I would breeze through that copy of "Ulysses" for the first time since college--and might actually understand it this time. I'd finally pick up that Faulkner trilogy I got from the Book-of-the-Month Club. (OK, I admit it: I didn't mean to order it. I always forget to send back those damned cards.) And, of course, I'd finish writing that screenplay--me and the rest of L.A.

Dashed hopes, all of them. The bug hit first. No, it was more than a bug; it was an addiction--to daytime TV and all the mind-numbing talk shows and endless reruns and inane trash that suck you into its abyss.

I know, because for two weeks, I lived it.

*

At first, I went through the classic denial: The TV was only on "in the background." Really, it was. So what if that New Yorker magazine on the couch had been opened to the same article for two hours, I told myself; I really was doing something besides watching "The Ricki Lake Show" and "The Montel Williams Show" and some new one called "Forgive or Forget" with an ebullient host named Mother Love.

Then the excuses: I couldn't walk. I was so doped up on Vicodin that I wasn't up for anything more challenging than seeing whether the blond on Sally Jesse Rafael was really going to forgive her longtime beau for sleeping with her twin sister.

But the signs of addiction became too obvious to deny. By the end of the first week, as I lay strapped to a couple of fancy gadgets that were alternately bending and icing the cantaloupe I now called a knee, I could rattle off the daily TV schedule without even picking up the dog-eared TV Times. (9 a.m., "Leeza"; 10 a.m., "Law & Order"; 11 a.m., "Jerry Springer." . . . No, please! Stop! Mercy! Make me forget!)

Then came the final, sobering blow: A well-wisher called to find out how my knee was healing, and--could it be?--I made up an excuse to call back in a few minutes because I didn't want to miss Judge Judy's verdict in a traffic dispute. Oh, the horror. (Judy ruled in favor of a San Fernando Valley woman who'd been spit at by a tailgater, by the way. In her reproachful, grandmotherly way, Judy was very, very angry with the assaulting motorist. Love that Judy.)

It all seems now like a surreal experience out of Dante's "Inferno." There I was, immobile, surrounded by transsexuals on "Jerry Springer" confessing to their boyfriends that they were really men; pajama-clad women with footsies on "The Ricki Lake Show" clamoring for "a sexy make-over"; Ed Koch, once-proud mayor of the nation's biggest city, arbitrating a penny-ante dispute on "The People's Court" over secondhand ties.

That doesn't even take into account the dramas that appear as syndicated reruns on networks like A&E: Quincy blustering on about that "gut feeling" telling him the surfer dude just couldn't have killed his girlfriend; or the gang on "Law & Order" discovering three times a day, like clockwork, that everything they suspected in the first half of the show was, um, wrong.

"Law & Order" reruns are decent entertainment, don't get me wrong. But three helpings a day of Paul Sorvino shaking down a sweating suspect in a dimly lit room? Isn't that the real crime, my friends?

My mental calisthenics for the day? A hard-fought game of Scrabble after my girlfriend got off work each night. I felt like a Mensa member. (She usually won, but only because she wouldn't let me use proper names like Montel and Jerry.)

*

After abandoning the couch and returning to the relative sanity of the office, I decided I needed help--me and all the stay-at-home parents and latchkey kids fighting the same, silent battle. I turned to Vicki Abt, a sociologist at Penn State who made a name for herself critiquing daytime TV and earning an invite to Oprah Winfrey's show a few years back.

She confirmed my darkest fears.

Daytime TV, she said, is the worst of the worst. Unlike prime-time, it bombards viewers with the same low-quality, prurient shows each and every day, five times a week, the only reprieve coming on weekends.

"It's wallpaper, but it's wallpaper that's addictive. It keeps you in the room," she said. And, "It's not just that you're watching crap, it means you're not doing something else."

Worse yet, she noted, "Jerry Springer" and other daytime shows have lowered the bar on poor taste to meet the addicts' ever-growing demand for El Bizarro.

"It takes more and more wacky things to get you high. It's not enough that a 12-year-old girl is sleeping with her boyfriend; then it's an 11-year-old sleeping with her mother's boyfriend while her mother watches. . . ."

Sometimes, Abt says, her students come to her for personal advice or motivation, looking for a cure to anxiety or restlessness or just plain boredom. A key part of Abt's advice: "Turn off the damned television."

Great idea. As soon as "Judge Judy" is over.

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