January 20, 2016

When television's stars were gods, with feet of clay

by W. D. Wetherell
Anchor, 384 pp, $14.00 

Morning wasn't morning until McGowan came to town."

This is the first line of W. D. Wetherell's multilayered 2002 novel Morning - or rather, it's the first line of a prospective biography about Alec McGowan, the hots of television's first morning show (appropriately titled Morning) and the young medium's first superstar, being written by Wetherell's protagonist, Alec Brown, the middle-aged owner of a small-town radio station. Brown's fascination with McGowan stems from the host's live, on-air murder in 1954, a murder for which McGowan's close friend and TV sidekick Chet Standish was convicted. Now, 46 years after the murder, Standish, elderly and dying, is being released from prison into the care of his son - who happens to be Alec Brown.

If that were all there was to Morning it would be a fascinating setup, albeit something perhaps more appropriate for a Hallmark movie. But there's much more to the story than that, thanks to Wetherell's eye for detail and characterization and obvious affection for the early days of television. For that opening line I quoted above not only sets the stage for the story to come, it speaks volumes about the promise and potential seen in those early days, when anything and everything seemed possible, and innovations occurred on a daily basis because everything was new.

The setup for Morning is obviously NBC's Today, with McGowan taking the role of Dave Garroway, one of television's true pioneers. In fact, you can probably go through the cast of characters and hook them up with their real-life counterparts (Lee Palmer, McGowan's lover and fellow murder victim, assumes the role of Today Girl that previously was held by Lee Meriwether and Betsy Palmer; Standish is Jack Lescoulie, the show's longtime sidekick, and Freddo the chimp is Today's famed J. Fred Muggs. Don't think these to be mere character ripoffs though, because to Wetherell the real names are merely stand-ins, place holders that allow us to find our bearings while he creates the distinctive personalities that inhabit each iconic role.

On the surface, for example, McGowan is everything we expect Garroway to be, right down to the black horn-rimmed glasses* and closing gesture, an upraised hand with his signature sign-off. ("Peace," in Garroway's own words, "Truth" in McGowan's version.) Through the force of his personality and the makeup of his show, he successfully changes the morning habits of businessmen and housewives across the nation. But while the real Garroway was notoriously shy and publicity-averse, Alec McGowan is a drug addict and compulsive womanizer, a man who hungers for the public eye and yet remains oddly mysterious, seeking in the future a refuge from a past that drives him to succeed even as it drives him further and further away from himself. You might think of him as a television version of Don Draper.

*I don't know how close this is to the truth, but there's a wonderful scene in which McGowan explains the use of the glasses, which he didn't need and never wore when he went out. "They cut through the fuzziness" of the TV signal, he explains, allowing him to create a trademark that would penetrate the viewer's consciousness even when the black-and-white image was blurry and unclear. Of such small gestures are legends made.

As the story progresses, we learn that Alec Brown harbors a grudge for his father, a man so completely separated from his family that his son does not even carry the same name. Chet Standish must, we would think, be one of the most notorious criminals in America, the first man to commit a murder on live television. And yet his motives remain mysterious, the act itself lost in the mists of a pre-video tape era that has given the act an almost mythic quality. It is this that motivates the quest Brown finds himself on - not to prove his father innocent, not to clear his name (for Brown harbors an intense hatred for Standish) but to try and understand what actually happened that day, and why.

What elevates Morning above the standard father-son conflict is Wetherell's eye for detail, his lovingly crafted rendition of the early, exciting days of television when ideas were produced at the rate of a mile a minute, a time full of hope, when the future literally was now, and that excitement fairly jumps off the page, so much so that you may find yourself wanting to dip into television history to learn more about these fascinating people and their times.* Think My Favorite Year, in a more refined version, and you'll get the picture. Morning has its dark clouds as well, though, and not just from the story Wetherell has constructed. As the '50s progress, the naivetĂ© of television's early days begins to fade away, as advertisers and network executives begin to recognize the commercial potential of the new medium, and whatever purity television once had starts to take a backseat to the bottom line: profit.

*Since it's a novel though, you'll have to do with the actual history of television's early days, which is pretty exciting on its own. 

Ultimately, Morning gives us a story of people searching: Brown, searching for the truth about his father and the murders, searching for the truth about his namesake Alec McGowan, searching for the meaning to his life, and what the future holds in store for his family, his career, his radio station. It's not just Brown's story, though, but television's, and the medium's own search for its future, one which it still seems unable to quite grasp. For what is television today, how does television see itself? Its networks are bare shadows of their past selves, fractured into dozens of demographic niche groups, with viewers cutting the cord in increasing numbers, and more and more programming coming from decidedly nontraditional sources. If the adults at the dawn of the fifties were the last generation to grow up without television, the children of today may be the first generation to grow up having it and not watching it. Had this book been written today rather than a decade earlier, it's interesting to speculate if Wetherell would have made anything of this parallel.

Morning is not without its faults, the coincidences and uncertain motivations that mark so many stories, with some things forced just a little too much. But ultimately one comes away from reading it with the idea that the final product is the story that Wetherell wanted to tell, and if the flaws are merely a byproduct of what had to happen in order to achieve that end, then it's a price that ought to be accepted.

If you're looking for a story about family conflict, about murder and motive, then Morning is just fine, as good a book as any. If, however, you're looking in addition to relive those early days of TV as seen through the eyes of those who made it possible, a story of lives shattered by a tragedy that seems preordained, and yet promising the chance of a future as hopeful as the dreams of the early medium itself, then it's worth your time to hunt this book out, either in paperback or through a used bookstore. For the memories of the "Golden Age" alone, you won't be sorry.

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