July 31, 2019

The consoling presence of television

It used to be said, before the internet made a hash of things, that there were three topics one never discussed in social settings due to their tendency to provoke: sex, politics, and religion. Well, we all know how that’s turned out, and one thing has to be admitted about old sayings—they’re often right.

What brought on this philosophical rumination? Well, the news really has been ghastly lately, if you’re the type that keeps up with these things. I won’t go into any details about just what they are or how ghastly they’ve been (see first paragraph for details), but suffice it to say that I’m not the only one who feels this way. The headlines tell us that more people seem to be depressed, anxious, or on edge about the world today. (Yes, I know they’re the same headline writers who tell us how bad everything is, which suggests something of a conflict of interest since the one type of headline would appear to be responsible for the other, but in the case of making us all Nervous Nellies, they appear to be right.) Under the circumstances, some light form of entertainment would seem to be called for, and since entertainment doesn’t get much lighter than television—and, after all, this is a website about television—it’s not surprising that this is one of the directions I head in when everything else gets to be a bit too much.

One of the knocks against contemporary television, and it’s a knock I’ve used more than once, is that it’s heavy, dark, nihilistic. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time or place for heavy, dark television; I’m rather fond of it myself. But television programs today can also be subversive, not in the creative sense of subverting our expectations, for example, which is what good mystery writers do, but in subverting ideals, values, even the very definitions of things which we as a society used to hold in common. (That is, when we had a common society in the first place.) Television, we have to admit, must bear its own share of accountability for helping make things the way they are, whether by creating the trends or simply promoting them. If you’re any longer in doubt of this, two words: Love Island. I rest my case.

Having read back what I’ve just written, though, I’m afraid that, rather than providing you with an escape for you from the pressing demands of the world, I’m probably just making things worse. That won’t do at all. So I’ll get back to the point that I started out to make in the first place, which is that one can still find, in the words of my friend David Hofstede, “Comfort TV.” Think of it as something to make you feel better, to give you that warm glow that you’ve been missing lately, like a bowl of mac and cheese. (Unless you’re lactose intolerant, that is, in which case I’m afraid I can’t help you, but perhaps one of the medical shows out there can.) For this, you don’t need to look any further than DVDs, streaming video, and even the occasional new show, and you can do it all without bingeing.

If you get the Smithsonian Channel and you don’t watch in on a regular basis, shame on you. There are some really quite fascinating programs there, shows that will get you interested in things you never thought you were interested in, and then hook you into watching four or five seasons’ worth without getting up from the couch. As with anything, don’t put 100% credence into what you see, but the shows tend to be more accurate than, say, the average article on Wikipedia. Lately, I’ve been watching Apollo’s Moon Shot, a history of America’s manned space program leading up to the moon landings. This was an obvious choice for me since I’ve been a space buff from the time I was little, but even though an entire 60 minutes can go by in which I’ll learn only one new thing that I didn’t know before, that one item is often enough to justify the whole series. Did you know, for example, that on the Apollo 10 flight (the dress rehearsal for Apollo 11), the LM started spinning around violently while separated from the Command Module? I didn’t know that either, or at least didn’t remember it, but hearing a cool customer like Tom Stafford exclaim, “Son of a bitch!” tells you all you need to know about how serious the situation could have been. And it is nice to go back to a time of big dreams and heroic figures. The series has now wrapped up, but if you get Smithsonian, keep a close eye out for reruns; they're on all the time.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you’re probably most familiar with one of two versions: Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone. You might have seen Ronald Howard’s version, which is pretty affordable, and pretty good. But have you ever seen the portrayal by Douglas Wilmer*? If not, you’re in for a treat; Wilmer’s take, from 1965-66. casts Holmes as serious, sarcastic, determined, with an arrogance that is both bracing and fully justified. Dr. Watson, played Nigel Stock, is still a boob, but more bumptious than stupid—after all, the man is an M.D. Fewer than a dozen of the episodes still exist, but they’re collected in a DVD set that I think you’ll really like, because I do.

*And don't be intimidated by the price; I found my copy for less than $10.00 at Half Price Books.

And who out there doesn’t like a good Nazi documentary? Seriously, they’re everywhere (except YouTube, which confoundingly classifies much of its Hitler material as “hate speech” and bans it; I don’t know anything that brings home the evil of the Nazi regime more than their own words, so this is about as counterproductive as you can get), and while you can find a lot of documentaries on World War II, I find that the most interesting are those that focus on the Germans, specifically the Nazi party. Unless you see Hitler and Goebbels, unless you learn about the Treaty of Versailles, unless listen to what happened at the Wannsee Conference, you don't really know World War II, and you can't understand how a civilized country like 20th Century Germany could fall into the Dark Ages. Watch the brilliant TV-movie Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann; the powerful Downfall with Bruno Ganz in a towering portrayal of Hitler; or several of the Hitler documentaries on—you guessed it—Smithsonian.* It's perhaps the least comforting of this comfort TV, but you'll be fascinated by it. And, considering how loosely the word is thrown around today, you'll find out what real Nazis were like.

*While you're at it, read Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels and learn about Germany before, during, and after the war.

There are any number of series out there that provide good fun; The Wild Wild West, with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin; The Persuaders!, a blind buy that was surprisingly good, with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore; the aforementioned Coronet Blue with Frank Converse; and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which is lots of fun and answers the question, "What if the Old Man from A Christmas Story hunted vampires?" Maybe you've never asked that question, but watching this will make you wonder why you didn't ask it before.

Television has always been a wonderful source of entertainment, a way to escape the pressures of real life, or to make that life more interesting than it was before. It's easy to bash TV, and quite often that bashing is deserved. But all it requires is a judicious use of judgment, a sizable chunk of common sense, and a willingness to be challenged. Believe me, I'm glad I have it today. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I share your affection for The Wild Wild West.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!