In light of the events of Sept. 11, television seemsif this is possibleeven more banal than before. Despite the estimable Walter Cronkite's pronouncement at the much-delayed 2001 Emmy Awards that television helps to unite us and heal us and blah, blah, blah, it's hard not to look on the majority of the shows on television with a combination of dismay and embarrassment.
This is not to imply that television is somehow useless or without worth. (Indeed, on Sept. 11 its successful dissemination of news helped to draw the country together in a time of crisis.) Rather, the nation's cultural landscape has since that day shifted so dramatically that many television programs once considered amusing, diverting or even important, now seem, at best, curious artifacts of a bygone era and, at worst, irrelevant and offensive.
Almost everyone, I would wager, could provide an example of arriving at this realization from, his or her recent viewing. (And I won’t be so foolish as to suggest that Americans are somehow refraining from watching television. If anything, we are more likely to stay home and turn on the tube in such uncertain and frightening times.) My own turning point came after watching Band of Brothers, certainly the best offering of the season. In our viewing area, the HBO series that followed is a dreadful little program called Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The series stars Larry David, one of the creators of Seinfeld and, if press reports are to be believed, a model for the whiny George Costanza character. In any event, I caught one episode, post-Band of Brothers, after having spent time earlier that day, along with my Jesuit brothers, with the firefighters and rescue workers at the World Trade Center. More to the point, I watched the show after reflecting for some days, like all Americans, on the stories of heroism that emerged from the tragedynot only the rescue workers but also the resourceful passengers on Flight 93.
In case you’ve not seen it, Curb Your Enthusiasm focuses on a New Yorker who spends the lion's share of his time complaining. Now, as someone who enjoyed Seinfeld a great deal, I was surprised that after only a few minutes of listening to the protagonist whine about how difficult his life was as a wealthy, intellectual, neurotic urbanite, I wanted to throw my shoe through the television set. (I was in the community TV room at the time, so I curbed the impulse.)
I thought two things: First, what are you complaining about? At least you're alive. And second: Oh shut up.
Likewise, many successful and amusing TV shows now seem inane and often offensive. Indeed, watching most sitcoms prompts one to spend a good deal of time wondering how the writers will ever be able to incorporate a changed culture into their programs. Can you imagine, for example, anyone on Will & Grace uttering a word about the terrorist attacks? Remember, they live in New York City; and, as Caryn James pointed out in The New York Times (11/4), if the conflict in Afghanistan continues for as long as it's expected to, many shows will begin to seem as if they are taking place in a time warp. All six of the Friends live in downtown Manhattan, don’t they? It's difficult to imagine them commenting humorously on the smell of the burning wreckage that has pervaded that area for the last three months.
The shows that seem to have weathered the changing events are few. Band of Brothers, again, offered 10 solid weeks of peerless television. Sure, there were complaints from some that the Steven Spielberg-produced series was, in the words of Lewis Lapham of Harper’s magazine, an advertisement for war, but for most viewers the show arrived at the right time.
The beautifully written and superbly acted series about dedicated men fighting for freedom (doesn’t that word sound less corny now?) reminded viewers that we've faced something like this before. And accusations of jingoism were undercut when the final episode placed the expected parting words of soldierly gratitude in the mouth of a German general bidding farewell to his men. His speech, both moving and ironic, about the solidarity of the fighting man in conflict, was translated for the assembled American G.I.’s by a soldier who had helped Easy Company to liberate the concentration camps. Overall, the show subtly depicted the tragedy of war, the beauty of peace and the call of duty.
Likewise, NBC’s somewhat ratings-challenged Third Watch provided two fine episodes in the wake of the terrorist attacks that proved both sincere and heartfelt. The first was a quasi-documentary focusing on the real-life efforts of the rescue workers in New York. The next two episodes were built around the activities of the show’s fictional rescue squad on Sept. 10 and in the days following the attack. They seemed to get everything right: the firefighters wondering how to be heroes (and pointedly reminding cheering onlookers about their low-paying jobs), the stress, the grief. Ironically, the show did a better job with the subject than N.Y.P.D. Blue, the more serious program, whose season opener adverted to the tragedy with only a few throwaway lines. It was jarring. One would have thought Detective Sipowicz et al. would have been more affected by what has recently convulsed the real N.Y.P.D.
About television news programs, the less said the better. After turning in a good performance on the days following the attack, the news media degenerated into their normal infotainment mode, whipping up annoying logos (America Attacked, etc.) and theme music to remind us that nothing, after all, cannot be fodder for ratings. Why, by the way, do such tragedies always require music and logos? (A trenchant cartoon in The New Yorker had a wife sitting in front of a television screen saying to her husband, I liked the theme to the Gulf War better.)
And the new fall season shows? Well, one could say even less. Here are the shows that, according to the latest ratings, we are supposed to be enjoying: Scrubs, a show about medical interns at a sort of E.R.-like hospital, is...a comedy. But its cloddish efforts to insert touching moments of human drama into a show that makes light of serious illness and death make for uncomfortable viewing. Smallville, the new show about the early years of Superman, is another WB teen drama: sort of Dawson’s Creek with superpowers. One hour of full-lipped, J. Crew models dealing with angst. And who can possibly keep track of all the crime/detective/spy shows these days? U.C.: Undercover, Alias, 24, Philly, The Guardian, Law & Order, Law & Order: S.V.U., Law & Order: C.I., The Agency, Thieves, C.S.I. and my current favorite bad show, Crossing Jordan, whose producers seem to have come up with a new high-concept pitch: how about a medical examiner with cleavage?
So maybe it’s time to set aside the remote this season, spend more time with family and friends, or even pick up a good book. And TV Guide doesn’t count.