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Bad Luck Is Fine, if It's Yours

November 17, 2002|Karen Stabiner | Karen Stabiner is the author of "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters."

We don't watch "The West Wing" anymore.

Actually, my family does. We tape it every Wednesday night to preserve the rule of no television on school nights, and then we watch it, together, on the weekend. Early in the first season, our pre-teen daughter announced that she wanted to be C.J., the press secretary, when she grew up. My husband and I, two yellow-dog Democrats from the Midwest, plan to dwell in the blue-gray, 32-inch glow of Bartlet-land, with all its liberal angst, until the real world offers us something better.

But lots of you have forsaken the show. Despite "The West Wing's" Emmy-winning third season, viewers have turned away in droves from the early episodes of the fourth season. Too dry, too serious, too much policy wonking, too little Rob Lowe; every armchair expert has an explanation.

Truth is, you simply would rather watch something else; our television sets have become the real weapons of mass destruction.

A nuclear warhead on the White House grounds was joke fodder on "The West Wing," but a terrorist bomb in Los Angeles is the spine of this season's "24," which, by the way, is up about 5 million viewers over last year.

You can find a "C.S.I." or "Law & Order" clone almost every night, duking it out with magazine shows about real crimes and docudramas based on real crimes. What gets ratings is assault, as gruesome as possible, either individual or global. Viewers want to see the beautiful corpse sprawled at the curb, or to consider the possibility that terrorists will forever retire the issue of traffic congestion on the soon-to-be- vaporized 405.

Why? Because at this uncertain moment in our nation's history, we are desperate to hear about people who are worse off than we are. Psychologists who deal with chronically ill patients talk about the tendency to make "downward comparisons": The newly diagnosed feel much better if they see another patient whose story is even sadder, someone who is younger, poorer, more gravely ill. There is hope as long as they do not feel that they are at the bottom of the heap.

We are in sore need of hope these days. We wake up every morning scared: There is so much to be afraid of, and worse, it is random. Snipers pick off targets they have never met, with not so much as a vendetta to ease the fear that any one of us could be next. The government warns us, variously, to stay away from bridges or trains or maybe tall buildings, except that we do not know which ones or when. The remedies are no more consistent than the threats: A friend with a little nail clipper got through airport security in Los Angeles, but a second one she bought in San Francisco was confiscated when she flew back home. This is supposed to make us feel secure.

Let's not even contemplate the economy, which has decimated the retirement savings of a generation and failed to provide jobs to cushion the fall.

Medical science? Be afraid; be very afraid. My favorite goof at the moment is hormone replacement therapy, which my mother's generation took to ward off all manner of ills, which my generation may well abandon because -- oops -- we seem to have gotten it backward, and those little pills are more likely to cause harm than to prevent it. New research suggests that estrogen combats Alzheimer's disease, which offers cold comfort: If we rush to refill our prescriptions, we'll be less likely to forget all the other threats the pills pose.

Then there is the environment. I live about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, at least for the moment. If the oceans keep rising, thanks to global warming, we could end up with a beachfront property before the mortgage runs out. Or consider the new American Express billboard that asks, coyly, "Is there anything plastic can't do?" Not a darn thing. It's so powerful it may alter the hormonal makeup of our kids, as they eat their lunches from it, drink their water from it and sit on chairs made of it.

So we turn on the tube and look for folks with real trouble: people who have been relieved of their life savings, their homes, their pulse; people who no longer have to worry about terrorists or the stock market or their health because they will be dead or convicted before we go to commercial. Compared with them, we seem almost well off.

It's a relief to contemplate poor Jack, who labors to save everyone else on "24" from the pending nuclear apocalypse without even knowing that his daughter, Kim, works for a madman. It's a relief to watch the procedurals, knowing that justice will be served at the end of an hour -- and that even when the cops or the lawyers nail the wrong suspect, we, the viewers, know who really did it. How lovely to feel omnipotent, even if it only lasts until we turn off the set.

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