January 28, 2015

The "Real" in Reality TV

Here's a shocker for you: a column that hasn't been thought out carefully, but comes to you on the fly.  I know; a number of you probably think that all the pieces on the blog come out that way, that I just make things up on the go.  And to a certain point that's true - there are many times when I begin writing without knowing exactly where I'm going.  But this one doesn't really have a narrative line per se; I'm just going to give it to you, and we'll see where we wind up.

So then: as you probably know, I'm no fan of reality television.  I've sniped at it often, and from time to time I've actually devoted significant space to it.  There are many people like me, people who think that reality TV is the most unreal thing on the tube.  "This isn't real," you can hear them say, "this is made up just like everything else."  But then, so is professional wrestling.

And it's pro wrestling that we're about to turn to; as something which has been on TV since, well, virtually the beginning of TV, you can't really divorce the two subjects.  From the days of Gorgeous George to Hulk Hogan to today, wrestlers have been some of the biggest stars on television.  Now, I know what you're thinking here: wrestling isn't real.  Of course not.  Yesterday I would have agreed with you completely, and that would have been the end of the discussion.  (And I would have been out of an idea for the blog.)

What changed my mind about this, and what causes me to think differently about reality TV (in the abstract, if not the concrete, is this terrific article from Grantland.  Entitled "Pro Wrestling for Auteurs," it gives the reader a look at the most significant wrestling documentaries of the last 50 or so years.  The fact that I'm just coming to it now, nearly three years after it was first published, is unimportant except to demonstrate that I'm sometimes behind the times, though always willing to revisit them.  But in discussing the history of wrestling documentaries, the author, David Shoemaker, points to a landmark in the genre, 1961's La Lutte, and it is here that we get the money quote, the part that explains everything that's to come.  The filmmakers, a couple of French-Canadians named Michel Brault and Claude Jutre, are planning to expose the fakery of wrestling, how everything was far from real:

Serendipitously, they met one Roland Barthes at a party, and although he was initially intrigued by the idea of a wrestling documentary, he was appalled by their objective. “Are you crazy?” Barthes said, according to Brault. “It’s as if you want to expose theater. The people’s theater, popular theater. It exists because people go see it, that’s the reason it exists. And that’s the beauty of wrestling. It’s an outlet for the crowd and it demonstrates how hard it is for right to overcome wrong. The good versus the bad. And don’t tamper with that. You mustn’t destroy that!”

As Shoemaker suggests, wrestling is perhaps the ultimate in interactive television, where the involvement of the fan actually can influence the storyline.  "The role of pro wrestling isn’t to be real — it’s to convey narrative reality, the way a documentary shapes a week of reality into two hours of greater reality."  As Roland Barthes puts it, "Wrestling is a stage managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.”  Adds Schoemaker, "The point is to give us what we want - what we need."

Perhaps we should look at the more overt forms of reality television in the same way.  Nobody in their right minds thinks that the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo are "real."  Probably not many think that the shows capture the lives of these people as they really are - they're obviously stage-managed for television.  Even the term "unscripted," which sounds more respectable than "reality," is a crock - perhaps the participants don't speak lines from a script, but you might as well say the same thing about a Cassavetes film.  The direction of the story, the plot, is anything but spontaneous.  But does that make them any less plausible than wrestling - than any scripted television, for that matter?  These shows may well give us what we want, what we need.

That doesn't make them good television, of course, nor does it mean they have any redeeming social qualities.  For every Duck Dynasty that presents values a sizable part of the country can sign off on, there's a Bachelor or Bachelorette that makes a mockery out of a long-standing institution.*  As repugnant as these shows are, can we honestly say that they're any worse than American Horror Story?

*Which, to be frank, doesn't need reality television to be made a mockery of.

Shoemaker has this to say about wrestling documentaries, but in fact couldn't one say the same about the entire reality genre?

What’s at stake in pro wrestling — what the directors of La Lutte got, and what [fellow documentarian Robert] Greene gets — is the very question of narrative art. Wrestling documentaries work so well because they — like wrestling itself — are edited and assembled to create certain emotional reactions. And when we, as fans, react to these films, we’re playing our part in the show. That Fake It and today’s best wrestling documentaries expose the “reality” of wrestlers’ lives doesn’t diminish the power of the craft that Barthes longed to protect. It shows us how much we’re all like those wrestlers we’re watching, and how much wrestling is like everything else we watch.

In the end, this kind of television - "reality," or "unscripted," or whatever you want to call it - should be judged the same way we judge any other television series.  My favorite series, Top Gear, could be considered unscripted, and I think it's great television.  Forget all the labels, don't get caught up in just how "real" the show is - simply ask yourself if it's any good, if it has any redeeming qualities, if it adds anything to the social fabric (which is often a matter of opinion).  Perhaps they don't give us what we need, but what we deserve.

January 26, 2015

What's on TV? January 26, 1959

Last week I mentioned that we were making a trek into the Dallas-Fort Worth area - my new hometown, but one I'm not that familiar with, TV-wise.  This week is more of the same, with a trip into upper New England.   Let's see what the programming has to offer us on Monday, January 26, 1959.

January 24, 2015

This week in TV Guide: January 24, 1959

This week it's the first of several issues coming to us from New England.  I'm a bit familiar with the area myself, having lived in Maine for four years, so I recognize a few of these stations.  And while we'll see some differences in programming, for the most part television is television, no matter where it comes from.

***

And we'll lead off with our cover story, looking at the great Red Skelton. You might think he's the one asking "What Good Are Television Critics?" but he's not - we'll get to that later.  In fact, the bulk of this article asks a different question - "What Makes a Clown?" - and plays this off against the death last year of his nine-year-old son Richard from leukemia.  Does tragedy help define a clown - you know, in the same way that Janus has the laughing and crying face?  "Malarky!" Red replies (or something like that; I'm betting that he didn't use quite that tame a word); "My comedy has nothing to do with tragedy.  I couldn't tell you why people laugh at me."

But laugh at him they do.  Skelton started on radio in 1937, graduating to host his own show the next year, and moved to television in 1951, where he will stay until 1971.  He's made movies, done countless personal appearances, and lives on an estate with his wife and daughter and a staggering number of pets.  In his spare time he paints clown pictures (such as the one on the cover), and estimates he's done at least 500.

But Dwight Whitney's story keeps coming back to tragedy, albeit sensitively, and though Skelton denies it, there is a moment when he lets the mask slip.  Everyone undergoes tragedy, he says, everyone suffers.  "How about the parents during the war who sweated out that telegram from the War Department?"  And then, after a pause, he adds, "Except my kid had no gun to defend himself with."

Red Skelton has a reputation for being difficult to work with, a suggestion that all is not rosy behind the crowd-pleasing clown's face, but for this article, at least, Skelton is all-too human.

***

It's a Leonard Bernstein doubleheader this week!  I assumed that Sunday afternoon's concert on CBS, in which Bernstein leads his New York Philharmonic in a program called "Jazz in Classical Music," must have been one of his renowned "Young People's Concerts."  After all, it has all the trademarks of one of Bernstein's programs, "showing how composers have consciously or unconsciously employed jazz elements" in their classical pieces.

But no - flipping the pages to the front of the programming section, there Bernstein is again, with a Saturday noon offering, on CBS that is one of the Young People's Concerts.  The ad promises "an exciting opportunity to learn 'What Does Classical Music Mean?'"  And it was exciting.  Bernstein, whatever his faults and flaws - and he had many, both professionally and personally - was a wonderful teacher, not only able to transmit knowledge to both children and adults in an understandable manner, but to infuse it with his own personal enthusiasm and excitement.  I wasn't yet alive when his Young People's broadcasts started, but Bernstein did them throughout the '60s, and many of them (along with his broadcasts for Omnibus) survive on DVD.  Here's part one of the broadcast in question:


To this day I may not always get everything he's teaching, but I know he had a lot to do with building a love of classical music in me.  Could anyone today do what Bernstein did back then?  My wife suggested Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor for the San Francisco Philharmonic, who succeeded Bernstein in the original broadcasts.  He's done some very good classical music programs for PBS in the last few years, but could he transmit Bernstein's excitement to young people?  If there's anyone out there who could, I suspect it would be Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  I wish he'd try it, he might be the only one who could talk a network into broadcasting that kind of show.  Since most schools, for whatever reason, no longer have music appreciation, a show like this may be the last best hope for transmitting to future generations a love of classical music.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION

***

Also on Saturday night, WBZ carries Archbishop Fulton Sheen's religious program Life is Worth Living.  Sheen is one of the most famous religious apologists of the time, a popular and widely loved spokesman for the Christian faith.  His gentle, witty manner has won many converts among both celebrities and ordinary folk, and his long-running program, seen first on DuMont, then ABC, and by 1959 in syndication, has won Emmy awards and drawn audiences of as many as 10 million viewers.  Here's the program that was broadcast that Saturday on WBZ, with Sheen discussing the topic of courtship:


This of course begs the same question: could anyone do this today?  Granted there are any number of religious networks on cable today, including the Catholic network EWTN, which broadcasts Sheen's program.  But could a mainstream network do it?  You've got to be kidding, right?  These are the people who won't even use the word "Christmas" anymore.  But even if there was such an opportunity, who would take advantage of it?  With Billy Graham having retired, is there anyone that the public would trust, anyone who could escape the suspicions generated by sex and financial scandals?  I know a few who would be great at it, but they lack the high profile to be able to do it.  No, I think not - and in this case, the churches have often been their own worst enemies.

***

There are other programs like these this week - The Voice of Firestone, for example, which airs on ABC Monday nights and this week features a quintet of stars from the Metropolitan Opera; and a host of religious programs on Sunday morning, including highlights of the installation of the new Protestant Episcopal Bishop, shown on WHDH in Boston.

And those aren't the only kinds of programs you don't see on mainstream television anymore.  For instance, science.

The United States has been in something of a tizzy about a "science gap" since the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957.  Amid growing fears that the U.S. is falling farther and father behind, the nation launches a renewed emphasis on teaching science*, and evidence of that can be seen on TV screens everywhere.

*No pun intended.

On NBC Monday night, our favorite scientist, Dr. Linguistics (aka Dr. Frank Baxter) is back with another installment in the Bell Laboratories Science Series, "The Alphabet Conspiracy."


Continental Classroom, which airs Monday through Friday morning at 6:30am ET on Portland's WCSH, is chock-full of science programming - "Electromagnetic Waves" on Monday, "Vacuum Tubes" on Tuesday, "Experiment on Vacuum Tubes" on Wednesday, "Oscillators and Amplifiers" on Thursday, and "Transistors" to end the week.  WGBH, Boston's legendary public broadcasting channel, carries Grade 6 Science on Monday morning and has Science in Sight on Monday evening, and WPRO in Providence has Space and Science Saturday afternoon, And then, of course, there's the grandfather of them all, NBC's Watch Mr. Wizard, with Don Herbert.  Oh, and don't forget programs such as G-E College Bowl, which made knowledge admirable, if not sexy.

Does any of this help close the gap?  I don't know.  We do know that the United States will catch and pass the Soviets, landing a man on the moon a little over ten years from now.  It is a great victory for American engineering and one of the great scientific achievements of all time.  Now, over 40 years since that first moon landing, there's a cable channel devoted to science, But you might need that microscope to find any scientific programming on mainstream television.

***

"What good are television critics?" is the question posed on this week's cover.  And the answer?  It depends on who you ask.  Oliver Treyz, president of ABC, says they "Certainly affect our over-all thinking," which C. Terence Clyne, vice president of the McCann-Erickson ad agency, counters that critics' importance are "limited to the board of directors of the sponsor and his ad agency."*

*Remember that at this time, sponsors were still prime movers and shakers when it came to the television schedule, and a sponsor could doom a series if it withdrew sponsorship.

Critics are themselves divided on the subject - the famed New York Times critic Jack Gould things "our influence is vastly overrated.  We generate interest more than influence," while his counterpart at the Herald Tribune, John Crosby, says that he and other critics get plenty of mail from their readers telling that that "we persuade or dissuade them from watching a certain show."  A recent poll shows that 54% of viewers have, at one time or another, made their viewing choices based on a review.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on, though, is that critics perform a vital function.  David Susskind feels it is the critic who holds producers' feet to the fire, forcing him to offer better quality programming.  "Without the critic, I believe we would have more mediocrity than we now have."

***

Last week I wrote about the March of Dimes, which updated the progress of their annual campaign with a local television program.  This week, we're reminded again of how big the March of Dimes was with WHDH's March of Dimes Auction.  The show kicks off at 2pm and runs until 4:30, returning intermittently throughout the night until the station signs off.  All the goods are donated by local merchants, and the phones are being handled by "models and Channel 5 staffers."  It reminds me of the old Action Auction fundraiser on Minneapolis' PBS station, Channel 2 - although that was used to raise money for the station itself.

The show is described as a fundraiser "for the benefit of polio victims," of which there are still many.  It's true, however, that with the advent of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, polio is not the horrifying plague that it has been for so many generations.  And this ad perhaps indicates that knowledge, as the organization begins to transition from polio research to that of other illnesses, finally settling on birth defects.  I love the tag line at the end of this ad: "Toward Greater Victories".  It's a reminder that the March of Dimes helped fund the discoveries that helped stamp out polio, and a sign that the same kind of scientific progress can be made toward other diseases.  And a reminder, as if we didn't need one this week, that science indeed plays a major role in the culture of the late 1950s.

January 23, 2015

Quick stops Around the dial

A week for some quick hits - let's get started!

bare-bones e-zine has another installment of the Hitchcock Project - this time The Alfred Hitchcock Hour's second-season episode "The Second Verdict."

Classic Film and TV Cafe writes about a classic Sidney Poitier film that I can remember seeing on TV many years ago - To Sir, With Love. I did not know that the movie was directed by James Clavell, who wrote the epic novel Shōgun.

Classic TV Sports has a positive review of Al Michaels' new autobiography, You Can't Make This Up.

Made For TV Mayhem has a look at the made-for-TV movie Death Among Friends, a pilot for a series that never came about, but likely influenced some that did.

Cult TV Blog continues working his way through Brit TV of the seventies, this time with the series Minder.

Michael's TV Tray celebrates the birthday of the one and only Eartha Kitt.

Comfort TV has a great piece on how to settle in for a night of comfortable TV watching.  A man after my own heart!

Television Obscurities' latest TV Guide review is from January 23, 1965.  I hope you're reading these!

Happy reading - and we'll see you back here tomorrow!

January 21, 2015

The noir side of television

TV Noir: The Twentieth Century
by Ray Starman
(180 pages, $7.95 on Kindle)

When we talk about noir, we think of some of the great mystery movies of the mid-20th Century - Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep.  We think of hapless heroes and hardened dames, dirty double-dealers and bitchy betrayers and bad, bad endings; cigarette smoke and ceiling fans and the shadows of blinds slanting diagonally across the room, all in glorious black-and-white.

In other words, we don't often think of television, other than as a place where we've seen so many of these movies.

Which is why Ray Starman’s book TV Noir: The Twentieth Century is both an unlikely and a welcome addition to the television bookshelf.  Starman takes an encyclopedic look at TV shows from the 1940s to the present, examining them not only in visual terms, but in how the underlying themes of noir – corruption, pessimism, persecution of the innocent, and a feeling of helplessness – have penetrated programs all the way from Dragnet and The Untouchables to less likely prospects such as Miami Vice, Millennium and The X-Files.  All of which is to say that this is a book that causes me to look at some of these shows in a different, more appreciative light – both shows I’ve watched and enjoyed in the past, and new series to which I’ve never given much thought.

The noir roots of some series are obvious – Peter Gunn, for example, in which most all of the action takes place at night, on rain-slickened streets or smoky lounges full of jazz musicians and torch singers.  But then there’s Manhunter, the 1974-75 CBS series starring Ken Howard as a 1930s amateur crime fighter hunting down criminals following the death of his best friend during a bank robbery.  It only ran for 22 episodes, so many of us might not be familiar with it, and noir might not be the first thing that comes to mind.  But, as Starman writes, the show’s noir elements, “such as the loner fighting crime in his own personal, unofficial way, the lonely existence and mission that ruled his life and kept him from living more pleasant experiences [and t]he accent on violence and happenstance and accident] are obvious noir parallels.

I mentioned Miami Vice earlier, and Starman concedes that on the surface, with the bright colors and Phil Collins tunes, it’s so “not noir.”  But Starman disassembles Vice, looking at everything from photography and color difference to camera angles, to conclude that there is indeed a particular cinema associated with television noir (shooting nighttime scenes at night rather than through a filter, for example) that simply does not appear in non-noir TV.  And then there’s the cynicism, so typical of film noir, the hopeless feeling that Crockett and Tubbs will never succeed in the fight against crime, that for every hood or dealer they arrest or kill, another one will simply take his place.  As screenwriter and director Paul Schrader notes, noir is not a genre in and of itself, but “a style that reveals itself in any genre or drama.”  Given that, the analysis that follows is not only provocative but brings a new appreciation to the program.  Is it any wonder, then, that Vice’s mastermind, Michael Mann, has gone on to make noir-affiliated movies such as Public Enemies?

Rather than using a narrative, Starman looks at each show individually, categorized in such genres as “Police,” “Private Detective,” “Reporters,” “Spies,” and even “Westerns,” “War,” and “Science Fiction.”*  While this makes analysis of each show easy, it does limit the ability to look at trends as they form throughout time, although Starman offers a prologue for each “age” of the book that helps track such evolutions.  In addition, there are some typos and line breaks that indicate the manuscript could do with the oversight of a good editor. (I’d be happy to volunteer!)

*As I’ve noted in the past, the Private Detective genre, once such a dominant part of television, is virtually non-existent by the 2000s.

These flaws do nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment of the book, however, nor do they detract from the valuable information that Starman provides.  TV Noir is a necessary book that puts the spotlight on a less-obvious aspect of television, particularly in the color era, and it taught me things I didn’t know and hadn’t considered.  It is, therefore, a perfect addition to the Hadley Television Library.

January 20, 2015

What's on TV? January 16, 1960

We're back in another issue of TV Guide from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and as such I don't have a lot of local background to add. In a few more years, as I learn more about the history behind the television of my new home town, I expect this to change - but in the meantime, take a look at the listings from Saturday, January 16, 1960, and enjoy!