Where's Charles Kuralt when we really need him? And why isn't somebody on TV doing feature reporting the way he did?
Kuralt, who died in 1997, instantly came to mind when my editor suggested that I do a column about TV shows that would give the people of Afghanistan a good idea of who we are now that they, in some cases, are literally digging up old TV sets they had hidden from the Taliban. What better introduction to the U.S. than Kuralt's "On the Road" vignettes spotlighting everyday Americans, some brave, some enterprising, some self-sacrificing, some just odd.
Then my editor said the shows had to be current, or at least currently playing, stuff Afghans conceivably can get with a satellite dish. The assignment automatically got tougher. Take a look at the TV listings and you'll see what I mean.
There just aren't many shows now that represent us in the fullest and most positive sense of who we are. There aren't many shows that do us proud. Perhaps there never have been, but I have to say I would rather be represented by the wishful illusions of "The Andy Griffith Show" or "The Cosby Show" than the punitive banter of "Will & Grace" or "Family Guy."
Considered from the perspective of religiously conservative, war-battered and deprived people, many of our entertainment shows would make us look silly, shallow, spoiled and decadent. And I'm not talking about last week's "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" or "Britney Cleavage Live From Las Vegas." Imagine the reaction to top-rated "Friends," with its lighthearted attitude about sex and its current story line about an unwed woman's pregnancy, or the gleefully lecherous "Just Shoot Me." What would the people in Kabul make of the student bodies or the routinely disrespected teachers of "Boston Public"? Would they find the very notion of "Survivor" an affront to their real daily struggle to survive?
We watch TV mainly as a diversion, so naturally the situations tend to be exaggerated for the sake of drama or amusement. There's nothing wrong with that. Every culture has its entertainments. But it's pathetic that so little of our television entertainment has much to say to us--or to others--about what our everyday lives are like: how we work, how we worship, how we eat, how we spend our leisure time.
It doesn't show how diverse we are, and it only hints occasionally that there are among us people who are not fantastically rich. I found myself looking in the TV listings to see if anybody was still showing "Roseanne" reruns so I could include it in my list. The Conner family was the closest thing to a poor family I could recall in weekly prime time in years. They weren't actually poor, but at least their appliances didn't match, and they sometimes couldn't pay the light bill.
You've heard Gertrude Stein's epigram used to characterize podunk towns: "There is no there there." In our TV worlds, there's no "us" there most of the time. Even so, I tried to come up with some shows that would give Afghans a clue. These are my picks:
"NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation": Because they demonstrate that we care about justice and because they show decent, imperfect men and women who work hard to see to it that people who do bad things are captured and punished.
"ER" and "Third Watch": Rainbow coalitions of lifesavers.
"The King of Queens," "Any Day Now" and "That's Life": As ordinary as Americans get in fictional TV shows.
"Emeril Live": Not the sitcom, the cooking show. Emeril is a chef-capitalist who turned a culinary knack into a cottage industry. He's the American dream caramelized. Just edit out his "Bams!" Afghans have had enough of those to last a century.
"Baywatch": To show that even vain, ridiculously beautiful Americans sometimes devote themselves to saving people in distress.
"The West Wing": Democracy in all its messy glory.
"CBS Sunday Morning": All that survives of the Kuralt legacy, an oasis of art, considered opinion and appreciation of natural beauty.
"The Simpsons": One of the few shows we have that includes a South Asian character (Apu), it also demonstrates that at least some of us know how absurd we must look to people from other lands.