March 25, 2014

We can be heroes, just for one day

Originally posted at Our Word and Welcome to It on June 4, 2008

The nice thing about collecting vintage TV Guides is that you never know what you're going to find when you open the pages. The latest series of acquisitions to the Hadley library includes the issue of April 27, 1974. Watergate and cynicism are riding high at that point in time, along with the rise of "relevant" television. Against that backdrop, writer Edith Efron hosts a roundtable discussion on the question of "What makes a hit" television program. Among the participants is the famed television producer of the 60s and 70s, Quinn Martin (The Fugitive, The FBI, The Streets of San Francisco, among many hits). In the course of the discussion, Martin talks about the values he imparts in his programs, one of which is the belief in heroes:
We're hitting the great heartland of America, and they want shows where the leading man does something positive, and has a positive result. Every time you go against that, you can almost automatically say you are going to fail. . . I believe in heroes myself. And I know that people sitting in American living rooms will just not accept an antihero, or a bad protagonist.
The conversation continues as to what makes a hero, and again Martin is firm in his belief that being a hero requires heroic actions. He's joined in the discussion by Star Trek guru Gene Roddenberry, and Grant Tinker, creator of the Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart shows:
Efron: Didn't the relevant shows tend to be antiheroic shows?

Martin: I'm nt sure. The ones I remember [young, idealistic, public interest lawyers and activists]. . . had heroic people - but they were all involved in very heavy material.

Roddenberry: But were they heroes? Were they faced with jeopardy? Going around and helping people is not being faced with jeopardy. They weren't heroes.

Tinker: No, they weren't heroes. The Storefront Lawyers, all those shows had protagonists who were social-worker types. They were all antiheroes. . . They were cheek-turners. I can't remember a cheek-turner who has ever made it in TV.
This is a fascinating discussion on many levels. For one thing, it shows how much television has changed. The antihero - that is, the protagonist who doesn't act in the classic hero mold - is now pretty much the de rigeur lead in most television shows. And for Quinn Martin, who couldn't imagine the American public identifying with a bad protagonist - well, suffice to say that he would not have been able to imagine the taste of the American public today.

But I want to come back to this talk about heroes, because it ties into an article written a couple of weeks ago by James Bowman. The topic: Indiana Jones and the death of the traditional hero.

Now I know what you're thinking. "Who, you might ask, could possibly be more heroic than Indiana Jones?" I thought the same thing; I've always had a soft spot for Indy and his larger-than-life adventures. Yet I'll concede the point to Bowman, at least in part. For, according to Bowman, Indiana Jones has changed the landscape of the movie hero - and not for the better:
[Jones] was outwardly a man among men, just like the movie heroes of old when played by John Wayne or Gary Cooper. But it quickly became apparent that, underneath that fedora and leather jacket, there beat the heart of a superhero — someone whose adventures could not have taken place in the world as we know it but only the comic book world formerly confined, cinematically, to Saturday morning serials. Since then the cartoon hero has proven to be a particularly stubborn growth in the cinematic garden, a hearty weed which hoovers up all the nutrients and starves more delicate flora. He is the kudzu of the movie culture, the zebra mussel that has taken over a whole entertainment ecosystem. Today, apart from anti-heroes and victim heroes, it’s cartoon heroes all the way. And now we welcome back the prototype of the cartoon hero if he were a hero indeed. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what real heroes look like.
From here, Bowman discusses the general slide of the movie itself into a form of social amusement for teens, with disasterous results: "the taste of the American 8th grader has become the world’s taste." This state of perpetual adolesence, Bowman concludes, has led to the denigration of true heroism - with the cartoon hero being the only hero most people see, it becomes harder and harder to appreciate what a truly heroic act is, and the kind of courage and sacrifice that heroism requires in real life:
But if you go back and look at the best John Wayne movies — The Searchers, say, or Stagecoach or Red River or Fort Apache or The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — they are full of difficult moral choices. The hero fails at least as often as he succeeds and he sometimes dies. It’s a lot like real life. We admire the John Wayne hero just because he’s not a Superman — or an Indiana Jones.
Ah, but it's too black-and-white for us today. And that's the true irony of it, for back in the smarmy, cynical 70s, we ridiculed Quinn Martin and his like for creating simplistic, one-dimentional characters. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the hero of The FBI, was a cardboard creation, we said, too good to be believable. Now, we live in a world where our heroes have traveled 180 degress, and we embrace them precisely because they're too good to be true. Heroism is just another means of escapism, something with which we need not concern ourselves in our daily lives.

Oh well. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, for as time goes on, things often change beyond recognition.


And by the way, for those of you wondering about the title of this piece, here is the original reference point.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!