July 30, 2022

This week in TV Guide: August 2, 1986

I've been doing this gig now for what, 12 years? You'd think I'd know the answer to that, but it's been demonstrated that many of you out there are more familiar with what I've written than I am. Anyway, during all these years, one of my constant themes has been the intimate role that television has played in people's lives. This week's lead story, by Joanmarie Kalter, examines how television "shapes the lives" of people in retirement communities—how, in fact, it is the only link to the outside world for many.

Kalter reports from On Top of the World, a middle-class condo community of about 8,000 in Clearwater, Florida, where the residents aren't afraid to admit that not only do they watch a lot of television, they love doing so. (I wonder if it's too late to get a condo there.) They use it for, among other things, keeping track of the world. "I do like to tune in on Washington Week," says Arley Sica. "And I'll tell you why. Those fellows are specialists. They have contacts in the Pentagon, entree to Congress. They're very important for understanding the news of the week." Among other favorites, they enjoy watching Wall $treet Week, 20/20, Dallas, Cosby, and Dynasty. He'd go into more detail, but he excuses himself, telling Kalter that it's time for the news.

Helen Martin looks at Today hosts Jane Pauly, Briant Gumbel, and Willard Scott almost like friends. Clarence Mahrie enjoys Hawaii Five-O, Police Woman and Barney Miller; he likes these kinds of shows that "solve the problems and it comes to a finish, which you know from the beginning anyway.  Sophia Karageorges watches shows like Highway to Heaven "where things come out good in the end, because life isn't like that. So you find it where you can." And when dinner's through, everyone crowds around, talking about their favorites, what they like and what they don't ("We already know what goes on in the bedroom," one says about the sexier shows on the tube. "They don't have to show us."), and they just laugh when Kalter tells them that TV often portrays older men as "bad" and older women as "unsuccessful." Says one woman, "Television is the best thing that was ever invented. That's all I can say." (These people really are kindred souls.")

Although advertisers poo-poo them, senior citizens are among television's most loyal viewers. They're also among the wealthiest; according to business-research group The Conference Board, "poverty rates among the elderly are now lower than for others, while those aged 65 to 75 enjoy more income per person than those under 45; 'The older consumer, so cavalierly ignored by so marketers, is in fact the prime customer in the upscale market.'" And slowly television has started to respond: Murder, She Wrote, The Golden Girls, Joan Collins, Lauren Bacall, and others are showing that "consumers in retirement are not ready to be old; what they seek, instead, is a final chance to be young."

Television does more than just fill time for these people; rather than being turned into couch potatoes, it keeps them involved. They're "far from old friends, from children, from work and the old home town," Kalter points out, and "television bridges the distance; it keeps them involved." They watch the news, they keep track of movies, they look for public television to replace the culture they left behind in big cities. It stimulates the mind, one person says, and adds, "There are some ladies here who just sit and sleep. They don't know nothing from nothing. It's a shame." The rhythm of their day is shaped by what time their favorite shows are on, and, says 84-year-old Miriam Hartline, "I'd be lost, terribly lost without it." 

Kalter charmingly describes this generation as one "for whom the wonder of television has never quite worn off." "It's all still new to us," Mary Brown says, and I understand exactly what she means. The residents all recall their very first set (so do I), and whether or not they took out a loan to get it; they remember the small screens and the magnifiers that were used to enlarge the picture, and they remember "how the neighbors would all crowd in to see it." They are fond readers of TV Guide, and they carefully mark the shows they plan to watch. They're purposeful on their viewing, and don't leave the set on as background noise. For them, television is not something to be taken for granted.

A few years ago, a writer in his late-twenties named Rodney Rothman wrote a book called Early Bird, about his experiences living in a Florida retirement community for a few months because he wanted to "practice living old," and it now appears that I’ve spent more or less my entire life doing just that, sitting in front of the television when I could have been out somewhere breaking world records or curing diseases or changing the destinies of various nations. The flip side of that, of course, is that I might not have survived to write about any of this, whereas watching television is a fairly sedentary activity where the risks are limited to things like diabetes and obesity and high cholesterol. But, you see, those people in Florida have that beat, because they’ve already lived through most of life, and if they do come down with any of these diseases, well, it’s probably better to have them at the end of your life instead of when it’s just starting out. That may sound cold, but it’s also probably true. My way, the biggest risks are those that you assume by reading what I write

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I know this might be a bit hard to swallow, but there was a time when Cosmopolitan was a sophisticated magazine, It was famous for publishing novellas and short stories by writers who were or would become famous; H.G. Wells, O. Henry, A. J. Cronin, Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London were just some of the authors who had their works published in the magazine. 

Then, Helen Gurley Brown became the editor, and turned Cosmo into a soft-core porn rag. 

I wonder if Helen Gurley Brown would have been published in the TV Guide of the 1950s or '60s, or even the '70s? We're past that point now, though, and so she features in this week's article, "How to Outfox TV's New Breed of Macho Men." It even reeks of sensationalism, doesn't it? The "macho men" in question—perhaps they'd be called "toxic males" today—are Sam Malone, aka Ted Danson, of Cheers, and David Addison of Moonlighting, also known as Bruce Willis. Now, I'll admit right off the top that I never watched either of these series, nor do I read Cosmopolitan, so I'm basing all my opinions on their respective reputations, as well as my skill at reading about popular culture. 

As Brown enters the scene, her question is a simple one: why do these women spoon for men who are "probably the wrong men," men who'll make them losers even if they win? "Smart Women, Foolish Choices!" she says. Take Diane (Shelley Long), for instance—smart, sensitive, attractive; "why is she hiding her brains in Sam's bar, waiting on machos and men who are afraid to go home to their wives?" Even if she does succeed in landing Sam, she'll still be working at the bar, while he's out playing the field. (So much for the redemptive love of a good woman, I guess.) Here's Brown's prescription for Diane: "Let Sam propose to slick councilwoman Janet Eldridge," she says. "That way, Diane can have the more rewarding role of The Other Woman. Sam is bound to cheat on Janet once he has her." 

As for Maddie (Cybill Shepherd), she's stuck pining for "a Peter Pan unwilling to grow up." Her suspicion is that Maddie would find David a better lover than husband, so she suggests the writers consider having Maddie give in to him. Or they could "have Maddie make the first official move on David, with him being chased around the desk and told he could either give in our lose his job." Wouldn't that be a switch? After all, she's the boss of the firm, and if things go south, it's always the lesser person 

According to Brown, both Diane and Maddie are suffering from "a real-life condition: men who are unwilling to face the responsibility and lack of excitement of a long-term relationship." All Diane gets is "great verbal sparring at which she wins only some of the time." Maddie, meanwhile, is "so involved with David professionally she doesn't get much of a chance at an outside life in which she might meet a prince." Could Diane and Sam, and David and Maddie, live happily ever after? Brown doubts it, and besides, "Their series would be canceled."

The whole article, well-written and witty though it may be, sounds exactly like one would get from a magazine like Cosmopolitan. And while some of her advice is actually insightful—Diane, for example, "may seem a feminist but is actually caught up in the time-honored, one-sided love affair in which a masochist is more in love with a semi-sadist than he is with her."—the whole thing seems, I don't know, so—shallow. There's no depth to these relationships, which always revolve around sex and sexuality, rather than sense and sensibility. And overriding all of this is the idea that for men and women, true equality means letting women benefit from easy sex and shallow connections, just the way men do. I know that there's more to this article than that, but really: isn't the Cosmo lifestyle just the Playboy philosophy for women? I rather think that the answer lies not in bringing women down to the level of men, but raising men to the level of women. But then, I'm old.

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It's what Judith Crist calls a "between-seasons" movie week; that doesn't mean, however, that it lacks for quality. The week's major premiere is that of David Lynch's magnificent The Elephant Man (Monday, 9:00 p.m. PT, NBC), featuring a "remarkable performance" by John Hurt as John Merrick, for which Hurt received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, coupled with Anthony Hopkins' compassionate performance as Frederick Treves, who struggles to help Merrick. The black-and-white cinematography paints a grim picture of Victorian London, and Lynch's direction gives a disorienting aspect to a movie that could easily have drifted into sentimentality in the hands of a lesser director. The result is a movie that makes "a deep mark in our sensibilities." 

Anthony Hopkins is back, and "memorable," in a rerun of the 1982 TV movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Saturday, 9:00 p.m., CBS), which Crist describes as "a brilliant, glowing version" of Victor Hugo's novel, with Lesley-Anne Down matching Hopkins's performance. Hopkins isn't in Absence of Malice (Sunday, 9:00 p.m., ABC), but it's not lacking for star power, with Paul Newman and Sally Field leading the way in "a slick and witty melodrama." And then there's the documentary The World of Tomorrow (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m., PBS), a wonderful and evocative (and occasionally bittersweet) look back at the 1939 New York World's Fair, narrated by Jason Robards. It's a "first-rate" look back at what Crist calls "a lost American yesterday."

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It's football season again, at least the practice version, euphemistically referred to as "pre-season" games. On Saturday afternoon (11:30 a.m., ABC), Wide World of Sports presents the NFL Hall of Fame Game from Canton, Ohio, pitting the New England Patriots and St. Louis Cardinals. The Patriots are off of a 46-10 drubbing in the Super Bowl at the hands of the Chicago Bears, but the real attraction of this game is at halftime, with highlights of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, with honorees including Paul Hornung, Fran Tarkington, Ken Houston, Willie Lanier, and Doak Walker. What a group.

On Sunday, the league takes its road show overseas, as those very defending champion Bears take on America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, from Wembley Stadium in London, England. (10:00 a.m., NBC) It's the first game of what would come to be known as the "American Bowl" series of pre-season games played outside the United States; while most games in the early years were played in London, the sites expanded to include Japan, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Ireland, Spain and Canada, before being phased out in 2005. Nowadays, the overseas games get played during the regular season. 

There's one more Hall of Fame worth celebrating, though; on Sunday, ESPN has coverage of the National Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies; the great Willie McCovey, who hit 521 home runs during his illustrious career, is the sole inductee from the Baseball Writers Association of America, guardians of the gates of the Hall. Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi were elected by the Veterans Committee.

We all know the start of the NFL season means the practical end of any other sport, but they keep trying; on Thursday and Friday, ESPN presents first- and second-round coverage of the 68th PGA Championship from the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio (11:00 a.m.); Bob Tway wins his only major with a two-stroke victory over Greg Norman. 

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There are a few other things of note in a month that's usually given over to summer reruns. On Saturday night, we've got a couple of failed pilots, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out why: In The Family Martinez (8:30 p.m., CBS), Robert Beltran plays a young lawyer who, on his first day in court, has to figure out how to sneak his fugitive client back into jail. Maybe not the worst plot in the world, but what do you do for an encore? Later (9:30 p.m., NBC) Sylvan in Paradise stars Jim Nabors as an inept but well-meaning bell captain at a Hawaii hotel, where his disasters have a way of working out for the best. That one's all too predictable, even with Brent Spiner playing a man with the unlikely name of Clinton Waddle. After that, a name like Data seems almost normal.

On Sunday, Motown Returns to the Apollo (8:00 p.m., NBC), a three-hour, star-studded tribute marking the 50th anniversary of the famed Harlem theater, dominates the evening. It's hosted by Bill Cosby, and stars Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., the Commodores, Lou Rawls, Mary Wells, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Luther Vandross—well, just about anyone and everyone you can think of, plus Rod Stewart, Boy George, and Joe Cocker thrown in. Anyone left out is due strictly to tired typing fingers.

Throughout the week, PBS's American Masters has "The Long Night of Lady Day," a 90-minute documentary on the often-sad life and hard times of jazz great Billie Holiday. I'd try catching it on Tuesday, unless you're committed to watching 1986, (10:00 p.m.), which was NBC's 14th failed effort at putting together a weekly newsmagazine. It's hosted by Roger Mudd and Connie Chung, and as I recall, the most notable thing about it was that it used the Rush song "Mystic Rhythms" as the theme. It was probably also the best thing about it.

There are a host of other relics of the '80s, lesser series that failed to reach the heights of, for instance, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I. or Cheers but still help to define a decade: Knight Rider, Remington Steele, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Silver Spoons, Hunter, Hotel, Perfect Strangers, Webster, and others. It's far from my favorite decade of television, but, as we've seen today, there's still enough to keep viewers occupied.

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The reason I chose this particular issue to look at this week was that I felt in it was a foreshadowing, as it were, a shape of things to come. I spent a lot of time looking at two articles that didn't really have all that much to do with what was on television, but they said a lot about what kind of people we were to become. 

I enjoyed the article about the Florida retirement community immensely. It reminds the reader that television is fun, that there's no such thing as hate-watching a program—if you don't like it, you don't watch it. Viewers discuss the shows not over social media, but around the tables after lunch or dinner, and trade stories about their favorites. And yet, you can see a shadow of the future, can't you? Some can't afford any kind of entertainment or exposure to the world other than television. Many of them no longer have family and friends around; they've all moved away or died. There's an isolation to their lives, even if it doesn't weigh them down. But that isolation will only increase over the years, and not just for the elderly, but for everyone. We all live in our own little worlds now, the metaverse, or whatever kind of alternate reality you want to call it, and if that wasn't bad enough, the absurd virus lockdown was about enough to finish us off.

And while Helen Gurley Brown's article had its moments, it points toward the pornographic society we live in today, one where everything goes, and magazines like Cosmopolitan are at the forefront of it. They've succeeded in making women as randy and debauched and depraved as men—that is, if they even recognize such a thing as women, among all the genders, and cis-this and trans-that and how to have sex with anything that moves. I suspect Brown's Cosmo was tame compared to today's, but you still know them by their fruits. 

A fascinating issue, and at the end of the day I'm pulled back to the movie about the New York World's Fair on PBS. The World of Tomorrow, that fair was called. Indeed, we now live in the world of tomorrow that this issue of TV Guide might have presaged, and as we look back to 1986, we see our own "lost American yesterday." TV 

July 29, 2022

Around the dial

Xs you know if you've been reading this column for any length of time (and if you haven't, why haven't you? Not that I'm not grateful you're reading it now, but still), you know that Comfort TV's David has been working his way through TV of the 1970s, determined to watch at least one episode of every prime time television series that aired in the decade. This week, it's Thursdays in 1970. How many of these shows do you remember?

You're probably also aware of the Hitchcock Project, which appears every couple of weeks at bare-bones e-zine. Jack's latest entry is Victor Wolfson's third-season episode "Malice Domestic." a satisfyingly nasty little story starring Ralph Meeker and Phyllis Thaxter. As always, I appreciate how Jack takes us through from the original short story to the finished teleplay.

We might as well include Cult TV Blog here as well, because Jack, as you should know (but let's not go through all that again), has been looking at shows that feature his hometown, Birmingham. This week's focus is on the sitcom Citizen Khan, "about a ridiculous British Pakistani Moslem man who lives in Sparkhill and fancies himself as a community leader."

And I almost forgot that it's still Christmas in July, which means that at Christmas TV History, Joanna is continuing her month-long look at TV inspired by It's a Wonderful Life. For your consideration, the latest link is to a February, 1991 episode of Night Court. Yes, it's not a Christmas story, but it does have Mel Tormé, showing Harry what life without him would be like. 

If you're a regular reader (not that again), you know that we spent the last weekend at Liberty Aviation Museum, where Carol was giving her Bob Crane presentation. While we were there, we learned about the passing of Jim Senich, Bob Crane's cousin and a source of invaluable information for Carol's book. Carol's co-author Linda Groundwater remembers him at Bob Crane: Life & Legacy. 

There was some confusion this week over the death of Tony Dow, but it finally was confirmed. If he'd never acted in another role, he'd still be beloved as Wally from Leave It to Beaver, and rightly so. But there was more to his career than that, as Terence points out at A Shroud of Thoughts

Finally, at Classic Film & TV Café, Rick has a great interview with Will Hutchins, star of the Warner Bros. Western Sugarfoot, not to mention Blondie, Hey Landlord, and a host of other television shows and movies. I have to think he's one of the few stars remaining from that era (although I know I'll get a hundred emails naming other stars still around, so we'll drop it right there), and you'll enjoy it. TV  

July 26, 2022

A friend, a sitcom, and a museum, or, what I did on my summer vacation

It had been over a year since we'd had anything like a "vacation," which I understand is an extended period of time away from work and home, usually doing something enjoyable; and it had been nearly four years since we'd last done the convention circuit, which I'd started to miss, vaguely. During all that time, the closest we'd come to anything remotely fitting this description was the week we spent last year scouting areas for our move last November, and while that was fun, it was also work. (Paid off, though.)

Clearly, it was time for a change. And while we spent less than 36 hours away from home last weekend, it did include a night in a hotel, so I think that counts. More important than that, it was an occasion to visit an old friend and a new destination. The old friend was Carol Ford, author of Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography, and the new destination was the Liberty Aviation Museum, in Port Clinton, Ohio.

Carol was at the museum for her annual presentation on Bob Crane's life and career. Why Port Clinton, you may ask? Well, as it turns out, the Liberty Aviation Museum has the world's premier collection of Hogan's Heroes memorabilia, a wonderful mixture of artifacts, uniforms, photographs, and other items that would cause any classic television historian, let alone any Hogan fan, to start drooling. (Carefully, though, since if you got anything on Colonel Hogan's shirt or Colonel Klink's pants, Carol would have killed you.) You can learn more about the link between Hogan's Heroes and the Museum here.  

We live close enough to the Museum that we could see this display more or less any time, so for us the obvious draw was the chance to get together with Carol for the first time in—well, in almost four years, which is a disgustingly long time to go between visits with a bestie. But then again, there was the virus. I've got Carol's book on Bob Crane (here's my interview with Carol), but it's a pleasure listening to her talk about Bob in front of an inquisitive audience; combine an in-depth knowledge of a subject and a genuine enthusiasm for it, and you have an unbeatable combination. You can get an idea of it from this virtual presentation but trust me—it's much better in person. And while I'm sure someone out there will say I'm biased, my opinions on the book and Carol's presentation are objective. But I am biased; Carol's a sweetheart and a wonderful person and a dear friend, and my wife loves her too. I mean, how much more can one man ask for? And it won't be another four years before we get together again.

In the meantime, the Liberty Aviation Museum is a trip well worth your time, whether you're a Hogan's Heroes fan or not, with historic aircraft, military artifacts—everything aviation from old-time mail routes to modern airliners, and a great, friendly staff as well. I found myself fascinated by things I didn't even know I was interested in, and suddenly I have this great desire to go to YouTube looking for vintage Cleveland air races. It's one thing to find more about what you already know; it's something else to create an interest you didn't have. If that's the test of a great museum, Liberty fits the bill.

Here are more highlights from our weekend living the high life.


July 25, 2022

What's on TV? Friday, July 29, 1966

This happens more often than you'd think: I open the TV Guide and find a listing for something I've just seen. (Considering the number of years I've been at this, I suppose it's a surprise it doesn't happen all the time.) This particular time, it was the thriller Fear No More, on KDAL, with Mala Powers and Jacques Bergerac. I hadn't heard of it before, but it's a pretty good movie, and Bergerac in particular is very good. I'd better look at next week's issue and see what I'll be watching this weekend. Speaking of movies, do you notice how many Westerns they're showing late night? I always thought Friday nights were for cheesy monster movies, and Saturday mornings were for Westerns. Oh well. Enjoy the Friday night listings from the Minnesota State Edition.

July 23, 2022

This week in TV Guide: July 23, 1966

This week’s lead story is written by British humorist and critic Malcolm Muggeridge, the sixth in a series of articles "assessing television's effect on our society." Muggeridge wrote for TV Guide several times over the years (I think this was my favorite); he was one of many distinguished writers appearing in TV Guide through the ‘60s and ‘70s, a period when the magazine was capable of a particularly high intellectual content. (Unlike today.) As interesting a writer as Muggeridge was, he was an even more interesting individual: a leading journalist, social critic and television personality in Britain, a soldier and spy during World War II, a left-winger who eventually because staunchly anti-Communist, an editor with Punch magazine, an interviewer with the BBC, a stinging satirist who became a harsh critic of ’60s permissiveness, eventually converted to Christianity, and was widely credited with bringing Mother Teresa to popular consciousness in the West. Incredible.

In this issue, many of his talents are on display. He freely acknowledges the influence of television— "what [children] see on it more than anything else, governs their present hopes and future aspirations"—and that the medium has become a major shaper of opinion: "If Nixon had been better made up, without that devastating afternoon-shadow, for his encounters with the late President Kennedy, it is perhaps he who would have gone to the White House."

He acknowledges that television is often of dubious artistic merit ("The old music hall, as I remember it in my childhood, was, by comparison, a feast of reason and a flow of wit."), and that the quality "declines visibly year by year."  However, he also cautions against throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it were:

Let it be remembered, however, that, on the same line of reasoning, the invention of printing might be as summarily dismissed. After all, far more type is dedicated to Peyton Place and Playboy magazine than to “Paradise Lost” or “La Recherche du Temps Perdu.” . . . How tragic if, because men could be debauched by “Fanny Hill” and the works of the Marquis de Sade, they had been deprived of the solace of the New Testament and Shakespeare’s plays, which also come to them largely through the printed word!

To critics who charge that television numbs the mind and turns people into what we today would call "couch potatoes," Muggeridge replies, "Nor is it true that, before television, those who now spend their evenings viewing sat at home doing embroidery or listening to 'The Mill on the Floss' read aloud. They were much more likely to be out at the pub studying tomorrow’s racing lineup or swapping dirty stories." He adds that television may indeed be "a cultural wasteland, but what about what they replaced? Was that a well-tended garden?"

The fact is, according to Muggeridge, there has been little serious art produced in any media—there has been far more "wealth, talent, skills and endeavor" spent in the last half-century of cinema than produced the Italian Renaissance, but the yield in terms of "enduring worth and interest" is "virtually nil."  Garbo, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin: "these are not the equivalent of even a minor work or art." A bit harsh perhaps, but not without merit. Rather than being constantly disappointed by television’s output, he suggests lowering expectations—"We do not expect tabloid newspapers to serialize Kierkegaard, or women’s magazines to run extracts from Thomas a Kempis. . . Why, then, should television be expected to manifest its seriousness and concern for culture by every now and again putting on a half-fisted production of 'King Lear' or mounting a boring lecture on the French Impressionists?" Far better that TV concentrate on what it does best: news, sports, comedy, soap operas.*

*He had some definite thoughts on those who appeared on television as well, as was shown in a memorable confrontation with Monty Python's John Cleese and Michael Palin on a BBC show in 1979. Maybe we'll talk about that someday.

This is Muggeridge as he came to be known in the late ’60s and ‘70s: an acerbic wit who nonetheless could not disguise an increasing seriousness creeping into his works. And it’s in that spirit that he leaves us with this optimistic note: for as many times that people have stopped him and mentioned how they’ve seen him on television, "not one has ever so much as mentioned, let alone quoted, anything I have said."  If that same "blissful ignorance" applies to all who air their views on the tube, "how splendid!"

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup.

Sullivan:  Satirist Allan Sherman; the Supremes and the Dave Clark Five, rock ‘n’ roll groups; Richard Kiley and Joan Diener, appearing in a scene from “Man of La Mancha”; actor Menasha Skulnik; golf champion Ken Venturi; comics Stiller and Meara; and juggler Ugo Garrido.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby and son Gary, comedian Henny Youngman; singer Rosemary Clooney; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, dancer-choreographer Hugh Lambert, comedy xylophonist Roger Ray, and the Band of the Fiji Military Forces.

"Those are both pretty good," my wife said when I read this week’s lineups to her. "I think you have to give a very slight edge to the Palace. They’ve got Bing Crosby, even with that talentless Gary, and besides, it seems like the Supremes were on with Sullivan every other week." Hard to argue with that, not if you want to have a successful marriage. Besides, with Bing and Rosie you’ve got a White Christmas reunion, and Bergen and Charlie are always funny. Maybe if it had been the Stones instead of the Supremes—but, alas, we’ll never know. The winner: Palace, by the slimmest of bouffant hairdos.

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With Cleveland Amory taking the summer off, we're fortunate to have TV Guide's movie critic, Judith Crist, filling in. And we're particularly fortunate that this week, the subject of Crist's review is none other than ABC's blockbuster prime time soap, Peyton Place.

Back in the olden days of radio, Crist says, things were simpler, and soaps often focused on a main character. But now, "the affluent society won't settle for simplicities," she writes. "We'll take our emotional calories in assorted nuts, by the handful." And as Peyton Place "snail-paces along toward its third season," the storylines seem, if anything, to be getting more complicated: "It was possible to keep track of things in the early days but more and more outlanders are drifting into the precinct. Blink an eye and there are three more mysteries on hand, with half-forgotten characters to go with them." Crist admits to harboring a secret desire that Martin Peyton will turn out to be his own grandfather. 

Indeed, Peyton Place seems to be a miserable place to live, a place where "people face life, hunching over the ghastly sins and secrets that have taken place off-screen and long ago, and reveling in all the sorrows and suspicions and soul searching they produce on screen and in perpetuity." And the show always seems to be on the verge of some monumental reveal, some dark secret that threatens to boil over; Crist thinks it will be that "somewhere in Peyton Place there's somebody whose parents were a properly married unadulterous pair, whose birth was therefore legitimate and who has reached his 20th year without having had a nervous breakdown, committed mayhem or even murder or, hope among hopes, stumbled upon the secret of his neighbor's sins!" Well, one can always hope.

Not that there aren't some positives connected to PP: the show has shifted to color, the production values are first-class, and some of the cast members provide a dignity that can produce the illusion that this show, compared to the daytime soaps, is of a "higher class"; and Mia Farrow, caricatured above, has "eternity in [her] wide, wide eyes." But then there's the "near-camp dreariness" of the dialog, the pace that makes it clear the program was "designed for sporadic viewing," and those complicated plots. Watching Peyton Place, Crist concludes, "is getting a big much—and lower-calorie diets are healthier in the long, long run."

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Since the death of Dorothy Kilgallen the previous November, the What’s My Line? crew from Goodson-Todman has been engaged in "The Great Woman Hunt," a furious search for a permanent replacement for Kilgallen, who had been with the show since its inception in 1950. So far, the seat has remained in the possession of a rotating cast of guest stars—everyone from Kitty Carlisle (a stalwart of Goodson-Todman’s To Tell the Truth) to Dr. Joyce Brothers, with magazine publisher Helen Gurley Brown, TV Guide critic Judith Crist, columnist Sheilah Graham, and actresses Joanna Barnes, Joan Fontaine and Dina Merrill thrown in. Even Muriel Davidson, the author of this article, has been considered for the list. It’s a tough gig, though, coming into a long-running show with a veteran cast; as host John Daly puts it, "If she doesn’t fit into our family, we’ll just freeze her out."

At press time there are three clear contenders for the seat. There’s Phyllis Newman, another veteran of To Tell the Truth, married to legendary Broadway composer Adolph Green; charming, bubbly and very girlish (and I mean that as a compliment), always having to tilt her head upward slightly during the Mystery Guest segment so her mask wouldn’t fall off. Sue Oakland is a surprise finalist; married to TV producer Ted Cott (David Susskind’s cousin), she’s got both beauty and brains: "Besides being breath-takingly beautiful and gowned, she is a near-genius, with a Master's degree in political science from Columbia University and with one lovely leg up on a Ph.D.*

*Her Master’s was in the inside workings of the United Nations; her Doctoral dissertation was "The Function of Television on the Presidential Election Campaign of 1968."

And then there’s society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker, whose nameplate will eventually simply read "Suzy" rather than the letter-crunching "Miss Knickerbocker."  Her real name is Aileen Mehle and passing mention in the article is made of her having a 22-year-old son. (That son, Roger, is an Annapolis graduate and naval officer, and on the Christmas episode of WML, on which his mother is a panelist, he appears as the Mystery Guest.)

The tongue-in-cheek question remains: "Can a girl be found who can win the hearts of a great, established family, still grieving the loss of one of its most beloved members? . . . Or will her struggle for acceptance bring about the destruction of the entire, proud, 16-year dynasty?" In the end, despite the producers’ vows, none of the ladies above, or anyone else, for that matter, wind up filling Dorothy’s seat. WML is starting to show its age, "developing creaks of the Nielsen in its venerable beams," and it will leave the air in September 1967, with a run of 17½ seasons—at the time the fourth-longest-running non-news series of all time, trailing only The Ed Sullivan Show, The Original Amateur Hour and Lamp Unto My Feet. Whether the right fit was never found, or time just wound up running out, that fourth seat on the panel will continue to be filled with rotating female guests until the very end.*

*Or almost the very end; the final show features a panel of Arlene Francis, long-time guest Martin Gabel (Arlene’s husband), former regular Steve Allen, and Bennett Cerf.  Host John Daly himself plays the final Mystery Guest.

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I've mentioned before that it can be a challenge finding noteworthy shows during the summer, but I think we've done quite well for ourselves this week. As always, though, you can be the judge.

NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies has the Kirk Douglas classic Ace in the Hole, which is airing under its alternate title, The Big Carnival. (8:00 p.m. CT) It's a cynical, cynical story of a newspaperman trying for a comeback with the story of a man trapped in a cave. But it's only a story if he stays trapped long enough for a dramatic rescue. Not to disparage any of my friends in the media, and I do have them, but this kind of news manipulation could never happen today, right? Right?

Sunday, the sports world focuses on the final round of the PGA Championship, from the famed Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. (3:00 p.m., ABC) It’s an early appearance for golf’s final major championship of the year, which is usually played in August. It’s also an unplanned location for the tourney; originally it was supposed to take place at Columbine Country Club in Columbine, Colorado, but severe storms in 1965 had damaged the course, forcing the PGA to swap sites—Firestone had been scheduled to host in 1967, but traded with Columbine. After 54-year-old Sam Snead turns back the clock by leading the first two rounds, the young Al Geiberger comes on during the weekend to finish at even par, good enough for a four-shot win over Dudley Wysong.

*A footnote: that night, a few hours after the tournament, 1964 British Open champion Tony Lema and his wife are among those killed in the crash of a small plane flying Lema to Illinois to compete in a Monday event. The 32-year-old “Champagne Tony,” one of the best and most charismatic players on tour, had finished 34th in what turned out to be his last tournament. Had he not died, I think a lot more people would know who he is today.

Burgess Meredith is on prime-time three out of five nights this week, all on ABC, which is pretty good for both him and the network and a treat for us viewers. His first appearance is Monday night on 12 O'clock High (6:30 p.m.), where he plays a scientist who's developed an airborne radar that allows bombers to zero in on targets even when they're obscured by clouds. Trouble comes when the Germans figure out how to zero in on the radar. According to the Close-Up describing the episode, during one scene, "Meredith received a rare accolade: spontaneous applause from the other actors on the set." Also appearing in a semi-regular role is Robert Dornan, before he gives up acting and runs for Congress; MST3K fans will remember him from The Starfighters.

Jack Hawkins, who was so good as Quintus Arrius in Ben-Hur, is also on multiple nights; later in the week, he appears as a prim and insensitive Englishman on Bob Hope's Chrysler Theatre (in a story for which Shelley Winters would be nominated for an Emmy), but on Tuesday night he's on Dr. Kildare (7:30 p.m., NBC), as an atheist whose heart attack may have been Divine Punishment. Or not.

Burgess Meredith is back Wednesday in the first of two consecutive nights on Batman (6:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, ABC); this week, Alfred, the butler of millionaire Bruce Wayne, is kidnapped by "that piscatorial pirate of plunder." No window cameo, alas; although Jerry Lewis had appeared in the first one earlier in the season, it didn't become a semi-regular feature until the second season.

Thursday night Eve Arden stars on an episode of Bewitched (8:00 p.m., ABC) in which Endora shows Darren what Samantha's baby will look like in 25 years. Arden plays a nurse at the hospital, while the episode also marks the first appearance of Elizabeth Montgomery in her dual role as Samantha and her Cousin Serena. Meanwhile, Rowan and Martin continue in their summer replacement series that eventually leads to Laugh-In; this week, their guests are singer Barbara McNair and comedian Jackie Vernon. (9:00 p.m., NBC)

On Friday, a delightful rerun of Sing Along with Mitch (7:30 p.m., NBC) features Shirley Temple as the special guest, performing the songs she made famous as such an adorable child star. And at 9:00 p.m. on CBS, the Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster conclude their documentary series Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at... with a review of the career of W.C. Fields. Unless you're in Minneapolis, that is, where WCCO pre-empts the show for a double-feature of Marshal Dillon.

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Ah, this is the kind of thing I always appreciate finding: a 1966 CBC documentary hosted by—Alex Trebek! Yes, the same Alex Trebek who hosted Jeopardy since who-knows-when and became a beloved American icon! And what makes this even better is that the original Jeopardy, with host Art Fleming, is still on NBC’s daytime schedule! Who could possibly have looked at this issue and thought to themselves that nearly 60 years later Jeopardy would still be on, and it would have been hosted for 37 by this obscure Canadian appearing on a CBC documentary being broadcast by NET?

The show itself is, I think, striking: a look at "The Cultural Explosion" of the 1960s. "More people go to concerts, museums and theaters than ever before—but are we on the threshold of a new Renaissance?" What, exactly, does this tell us about today?  It’s very intriguing; after all, we hear constantly about how the arts must appeal to young people, who are increasingly turned off by the arts, and yet when it comes to the ‘60s, we tend to assume that the young dominated the tenor of the decade.

So: were older people driving this cultural boom? If so, why? Was it merely a measure of the post-war disposable income that drove the growth of the consumer society of the ‘50s? Or did they have more influence over popular culture than we might think?

Their offspring, who today represent the demographic most interested in culture (i.e. grey-haired) must have had some of that rub off on them. If so, why haven’t they been able to do the same thing with their descendants? We know that schools played a greater role in art and music back then than they do now – is that the difference? Were they already interested in culture in the ‘60s as well, or did that interest come to them later in life?

If the latter is the case, does it suggest that today’s youth, for whom culture is dead, might yet come around when they get older?  Or is it that things have changed so dramatically over the last 60 years that they must be reached earlier, or be lost forever?

Obviously you could write a whole book about this. And yet, when those of us with an interest in the arts read daily about the difficulties faced by classical music organizations, theaters, museums, and more, there’s something depressing about this program, so full of optimism for the future, talking about a culture "explosion" and the possibility of a new age. Who would have imagined that the arts would survive the tumultuous ‘60s, only to run aground on the shoals of the new millennium? TV  

July 22, 2022

Around the dial

I don't remember how old I was when I found out there was a Birmingham in England as well as in Alabama; I was familiar with the latter due to Saturday college football, but as for the other, it would remain a mystery. No longer; at Cult TV Blog, John begins a series of posts on TV programs related to his home city. (If I'd done that, it would have pretty much started and ended with Mary Tyler Moore.)

Contrary to what you might think, Satan's Triangle is not some vague area over Washington, D.C., rather, it's a 1975 ABC Movie of the Week starring Kim Novak and Doug McClure. According to Paul at Drunk TV, it's a dark, dark thriller that still holds up, and if it's even nearly as entertaining as his writeup of it, that's saying a lot.

At Comfort TV, David ponders one of the most popular genres of television episodes: the class reunion.  I suppose everyone can identify with the hopes and fears we had when we were that age. Unlike David, I've never been to one of mine, which would entail returning to the World's Worst Town™, where my hope was to get out alive, and my fear was that I'd wind up back there some day. (Thankfully, no.)

There's still another week or so to go in the month, which means plenty of time to catch up with Christmas in July at Christmas TV History. Today, Joanna's look at movies influenced by It's a Wonderful Life continues with Richie Rich's Christmas Wish, of which I confess I have no memory. Be sure to check out previous entries in the series.

We'll digress from television for a moment to visit Classic Film & TV Café, where this week's film is more intriguing than classic, but isn't Jeanne Moreau classic enough for you? It's Rick's review of Elevator to the Gallows, which sounds like a Camus novel but is, in fact, the premiere effort of director Louis Malle, and if it could have been better, it still could be worth a look.

At Shadow & Substance, Paul revisits the Night Gallery episode "A Death in the Family," with E.G. Marshall as a most disturbing undertaker. A la Jack's Hitchcock Project, Paul takes a look at the original short story that spawned the teleplay, which comes to us courtesy of Rod Serling.

And finally, at The Hits Just Keep On Comin', a late notice of JB's blog anniversary, featuring some of his best of the past year. Eighteen years—boy, that's a long time. And yet, the hits keep on coming. He might be too modest to say that, so I will. TV  

July 20, 2022

Revisiting the police procedural

Someone once asked me how it was that I was able to think up topics to write about every week. This was back in the early days of the blog, when I was, I felt, much younger than I am today. At any rate, my reply was that I didn’t think about it too much—it just seemed as if something always came up at the right time: something I saw or read or thought about, something that provided a spark that, a few hundred or thousand words later, wound up on the website you’re reading at this moment. 

That’s still the way it is today, although I have to work a little harder to come up with the ideas, and the words don’t flow perhaps quite as easily or as quickly as they used to. But when it happens, it can be a delight, because I don’t have to email people or watch videos or look things up to get my thoughts down. I just have to type. And that brings us to today.

Actually, I did have to do a little reading on this one, because it has to do with an essay in The Georgia Review called "Policing the Procedural (on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)", by Sarah Rebecca Kessler. As you might guess, it’s all about the police procedural on television, in particular SVU, and because it’s written within the mythology of George Floyd and discrimination and attacks on minorities and the abolition of prisons and the idea that there’s no such thing as a good cop, it’s full of the kind of liberal claptrap you’d expect. (Sorry if that offends you, but it’s true.) Notwithstanding all that, though, Kessler make some excellent points on SVU in particular, and the procedural genre in general, and that's what I want to concentrate at today.

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There are those who will say that this kind of discussion is incidental to television, that the connection is too tenuous. I disagree. I give television more credit than that for the influence it has over viewers; how many people “swear” that something is true, that it actually happened, when in fact it turns out to have been something they saw on a fictional television show.* Therefore, it’s not at all implausible that people would take as fact something they’d seen on a procedural, and that it could influence law enforcement policy.

*Case in point: Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house; it was Tina Fey.

We see them routinely treat suspects with contempt, use surveillance techniques with little regard for civil liberties, and regard the public in general as an inconvenience at best, a constant threat at worst. Not just to the lives*, but to an existential existence, a series of restraints increasingly handed down by a ruling elite dedicated to limiting free expression as much as possible. We’ve seen how the modern police force has evolved into a paramilitary unit, wearing black body armor, enforcing laws that, more and more, come to resemble an ideological tract rather than anything necessary for civil order. They even view video footage taken by eyewitness as somehow a threat to them doing their jobs. They are, of course, “just following orders,” a defense that didn’t work all that well at Nuremberg. 

*Kessler describes SVU’s Olivia Benson as “a cop who, as cops do, often uses the phrase ‘good shooting’ to describe the killing of a civilian for the alleged crime of making a cop feel scared.”

Kessler is a fan of SVU (a paradox she freely admits), which gives her a certain credibility when it comes to critiquing the show and what it stands for. I, on the other hand, pretty much hate the program, and I’ve been a harsh critic of it in previous posts here. And, as I mentioned at the outset, Kessler and I come to the discussion from opposite poles: she from the left, me from the right. Still, there are areas where our interests overlap, and we share some of the same concerns about the way in which the police deal with the public and the way they see their jobs. 

Kessler wonders, rhetorically, “what it is that makes the cop show, and SVU in particular, so resistant to reproach and immune to reform,” and supplies a ready answer: cop shows tell the story from the cop’s point of view. The Wizard of ID once said that the real Golden Rule was, “whoever has the gold, rules,” and the same goes for the television series: notwithstanding a series featuring antiheroes, for the most part the stars of your show are going to be the good guys, everyone else is the bad guys, and the stories are going to be told from the hero’s vantage point. 

Indeed, one of the sure ways to tell whether or not a cop faces a harsh disciplinary action for stepping over the line is whether or not that cop is a regular. Unless the star is involved in some kind of contract dispute with the show, you’re never going to see their character face a lengthy suspension, or even jail time, In fact, featuring the bad cops as guest stars simply serves to reinforce the essential goodness of the system. (Imagine Mariska Hargitay missing for half the season.) Regarding the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer most publicly held responsible for the death of George Floyd, Kessler asserts that, "It was as if the proceedings had realized SVU’s central fantasy that 'a few bad apples' does not a broken system make." 

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In the wake of the Floyd death and Chauvin trial, writes Kessler, what was at issue "was not only the usual positive media coverage of the police, the 'thanks to our brave men in blue' that reliably precedes the names of the victims of a wholly preventable tragedy, but the scores of other televisual fare from reality formats like Cops to scripted dramas like Chicago P.D. that serve as pro–law enforcement propaganda." This is exactly what I've been saying for years, in the form of the argument that these shows wind up desensitizing the viewer to the real threat of authoritarianism, not just from law enforcement in general, but from the government in particular. Or, as Kessler suggests, maybe it's not "desensitizing"—perhaps what it really means is our contentment with the methodology. 

How many times have we heard some variant of the line that an innocent person has nothing to fear from the police, that only the guilty insist on their rights, that the most advanced surveillance techniques will only be used against the guilty? This completely overlooks the fact that, 1) it's not the job of the police to determine guilt or innocence, and 2) even if it were, the term "guilt" is likely to be applied retroactively to the suspect at the conclusion of the investigation, given that such techniques were necessary to make such a judgment in the first place.

The police procedural, says Kessler, "normalizes the cop-as-protagonist and the criminal as bit player. There one episode and gone the next, the perpetrator vanishes into incarceration while the victim, the witness, the wrongly accused, the journalist covering the case, and everyone else simply vanishes, leaving the show’s lead cop/s alone to ponder the right, wrong, or, most likely, ambiguity of what has occurred." It's always easy when the perp is painted with a broad brush, practically twirling a Snidley Whiplash handlebar mustache, and it reinforces the viewer's sense that they "had it coming." But if you're looking for a genre to broach the question of actual, real, reform, forget about it: "the police procedural structurally forecloses the question, much less the very real possibility, of abolition, since at the end of the day, the cops cannot be called upon to abolish themselves."

For years I posited the idea that shows like SVU and Chicago P.D. should, as a semi-regular, feature a defense attorney who was tough, competent, and honest—in other words, someone in the mold of Perry Mason or Clinton Judd. (George Grizzard filled the role for awhile, but it was never made a part of the series as it could have been.) There would be no suggestion that the attorney was trying to get his client off on a technicality, or through some other legal subterfuge, only a dedication to the idea that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and a determination to see to it that justice would be done. In order to maintain the dramatic tension necessary for a television series, the defense attorney would have to lose some of the time, but then there would be times when he won, and then the question would be open and available for everyone to see: What went wrong? Why did we arrest the wrong person?

It would be a breathtaking moment, as far as series television goes, because it would force those characters we've come to know and love to confront the fact that they'd made a mistake, that they'd arrested and tried the wrong person. Since we can't depend on the police to investigate themselves, the defense attorney becomes the medium through which this can be examined. In the serialized environment which television has become, it can’t help but give a series texture when its stars evolve through the course of the series—even grow. Where did we screw up?

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There was a series, once, that tried to bridge the gap, as you probably know. The 1963-64 ABC series Arrest and Trial starred Ben Gazzara as the lead detective, John Larch as the deputy D.A., and Chuck Connors as the defense attorney. It was a unique format, a 90-minute drama divided into two parts: the investigation, resulting in the arrest, and the trial. The crime and the punishment. Said Gazzara of his role, "I'm supposed to be a thinking man's cop. I'm a serious student of human behavior, more concerned with what creates the criminal than how to punish him. In other words, I'm not the kind of cop who asks, 'Where were you the night of April 13th?' It's my job to show that there is room for passion and intellectualism and personal display even within a policeman."

And that's good as far as it goes. Gazzara does, at times, come across as a bleeding heart. But, in my limited viewing of the series, it seems as if the writers try too hard to make sure that both he and Connors are right, that while the defendant might be guilty, there are also extenuating circumstances that mitigate his responsibility for the crime. While [creator] Herb Meadow had suggested that Arrest and Trial would be the 'first series where both protagonists will not always be right each week,' it was a promise that was easier said than done. As Stephen Bowie writes, "The corner into which the writers inevitably found themselves painted was the schism between the motives of the two leads. Arrest and Trial put Anderson [Gazzara] and Egan [Connors] on opposite sides of the judicial process: Anderson’s job was to catch the criminals and Egan’s was to turn them loose. Allowing the principals to be wrong 'occasionally' might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it meant that every week one of them would have to make a fool of himself — either Anderson arrests the correct perpetrator and Egan loses his case, or Egan sets his client free by proving that Anderson busted the wrong guy." If the show wasn't ready to tackle the Big Questions, nor to give us heroes with feet of clay, then such a format could never work. Law & Order succeeded where Arrest and Trial failed, because they chose to put the emphasis on the “law and order” side of the equation.

A digression, perhaps, but this is, after all, a website dealing with TV history. 

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Understand that I don’t intend this as a broadside against all members of the police. Unlike Kessler, I do believe that there are “good cops”; officers and detectives with a desire to protect the public, and dedicated to an even-handed search for truth and justice. (There are also officers, including some of whome I personally know, who are little more than fascist thugs, with an unforgiving view of anyone who opposes him as “the enemy.”) 

The indictment I have here is a collective one, of “the police” rather than the policeman, the paramilitary unit instead of the guardians sworn to protect and to serve. Kate Andrews, writing in Britain's The Spectator, describes the result: "We see America’s police officers treat low-level offenders and even innocent citizens with the same force and aggression you would expect to see used against the most violent criminals." Whereas Americans were once governed by consent, Andrews writes, today "America is policed by force." Police procedurals, in the way they dramatize the stories, justify these actions. In a previous essay I wrote on this subject, I quoted at length Gregg Easterbrook, writing about the series Chicago P.D. in a 2014 article at ESPN.com:  

But what's disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects—a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, "He deserves whatever he gets."

In the real world, law enforcement officers rarely are sure whether they caught the right person or what a prisoner might know. Some ethicists say there could be a ticking-bomb exception—if the prisoner could reveal where a ticking bomb is, then torture becomes permissible. But how could a law enforcement officer be sure what a captive knows? And if by this logic torture is permissible, wouldn't that justify torture by, say, the Taliban if they captured a U.S. airman who could know the location of a planned drone strike?

NBC executives don't want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don't say to make the show realistic. Nothing about Chicago P.D. is realistic—except the scenery.

Elsewhere in that essay, I added that, with regard to SVU, “viewers are witnesses to an amazing contempt that authority holds for citizens, which extends to every kind of bullying they can think of, including statements that I'd read as being clearly unconstitutional. (My favorite is when they tell a suspect that if they don't talk now, any chance of a deal is gone. Try telling that to some overworked assistant DA who'll cut any kind of a deal to decrease his workload.) These people aren't interested in justice—they just want to win.*” And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the typical trope that an innocent person doesn’t need a lawyer, and that the defendant who wins acquittal does so because of his lawyer’s slick tricks.

*Even in a series like Perry Mason, Mason often argues that once the police find their suspect, they stop searching for the truth.

The point: the justice system, riddled with corruption and ideological agendas from the Department of Justice on down, is its own worst enemy in the best of times; the last thing they need is to have a television show exaggerate the problem.

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“I don’t believe most or any SVU fans, liberal or otherwise, genuinely want the series to “do better”—whatever that even means,” Kessler writes. “As a fan myself, it behooves me to be honest about this fact. I would rather the show (literally) be canceled than ameliorated into something less fun to watch.” Conceding that this might be seen as a “crass” position, she explains, “if the show was just sincerity with no sensationalism, why would I want to watch it? Better a cop show whose absurdity is akin to self-parody than a cop show that’s trying not to be the cop show it most certainly is.”

Well, that depends. It may be true that in the realm of the procedural, Kessler is right when she says that ‘cop shows will always be cop shows,’ whether or not they remain hardline or feebly gesture toward reform.” But are all cop shows procedurals? Again, it depends. Naked City, to my mind one of the finest TV dramas ever, used the framework of the police drama to tell stories of life in the gritty city, often relegating the precinct detectives to the background as the guest stars took center stage. Sometimes an episode would use the flimsiest of pretexts, the slimmest of connections to police work, to tell a story that just as easily could have been told on Route 66. And I cite that story deliberately, as both Naked City and Route 66 were the products of Sterling Silliphant, a writer who could hardly be considered a right-wing law-and-order extremist. Under Silliphant’s guidance, Naked City wasn’t really a police drama; it was a drama about people, some of whom just happened to be policemen.*

*And not just that: I’ll always remember a Naked City episode in which Detective Lieutenant Mike Parker tells an aggrieved New Yorker that, as a citizen, he has every right to bring his problem to the police and expect some kind of resolution. What Parker realized, and today's cops don't, is that the police are the servants of the public, not the other way around.

Kessler doesn’t have any good ideas to offer here, concluding that “instead of disingenuously demanding that SVU and its ilk ‘do better,’ instead of policing the procedural into some illusion of justice, how about demanding an end to policing and to prisons?” This is, of course, a cop-out—no pun intended—because it relinquishes the moral high ground she sought to attain in linking the content of procedurals to the effect they have on their audience. If we’re that concerned about it, then we can’t just shrug and say that, well, that’s television for you, and entertainment is always going to win out over serious content. If you believe that, then why are we even having this discussion?

Perhaps I can speak more freely because I’m not a fan of SVU, Kessler makes a compelling case in linking the content of procedurals, the idea that these shows “desensitize” the viewer to the abuses committed by police. It’s a damning accusation, because it makes us all complicit in the affair, all sharing in the responsibility. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up their liberty in return for a little temporary entertainment deserve neither. If the analogy of frog and the boiling water holds 

Why, then, does she give up so easily? “What might television be in the absence of the promise of punishment on which so many of its genres, programs, and episodes hinge?” Kessler asks. “Can you dream up a cop show without cops?” The answer to that is yes—if you view them not as cops, but as men and women. 

Procedurals deserve the criticism they’ve received here, because they reflect a particular philosophy that strikes a sympathetic cord with viewer sentiment. (In other words, they manipulate you.) Kessler and I may not share much when it comes to ideology, but in this limited case we can see eye-to-eye, will say that even if it’s through sidelong glances. The harsh truth, and conservatives are coming to recognize this even as liberals have, is this: When your police force becomes politicized, when it functions not as a law enforcement agency but as an enforcement arm of the ruling class, then the police are not your friends. The sooner you ignore what you see on the tube and believe what you can see with your own eyes, the better for America, and her people. All of them. TV