We watch... so you don't have to.

Can This Medium Be Saved?

(Or, How I Learned to Love Hard Liquor and Loathe Television)

We've upped our standards. Up yours.
--Pat Paulsen

The first newspaper job I had at a big-time daily was designing the cover of its entertainment section. And through my position I got to interact with the newspaper's TV critic -- let's call him "Bill" -- quite a bit.

Bill had to have been the most depressed man I've ever met. At our story meetings, the entertainment editor would look across the table inevitably ask Bill if he could write, say, "a fifteen-inch piece on Judith Light."

Bill always responded the same way: He'd look up at the ceiling, look at his feet, tap his pencil about ten times, let out a soft moan, give up another chunk of his soul, and whisper, "Sure."

It's been five years since I've seen Bill's act. But lately, I empathize with Bill's despair. Because nowadays trying to write anything about TV for this site has become quite a chore.

It isn't easy watching tons of crappy TV shows, not even for the huge sums of money we get paid here at TeeVee. Sooner or later it gets to you. In fact, just the other day I found myself down at the local watering hole, waving a bottle of schnapps in the air and screaming, "Television died the day they canceled Mr. Belvedere!"

Disillusion, my friends, is never pretty. Especially when you have to endure a crunchy beating from a bartender who's also a charter member of the Alf fan club.

At the risk of sounding foolishly naive, I once sincerely believed in the power of television. It has given me a bounty of joy: Roots, the first game of the 1988 World Series, the first season of Buffalo Bill -- a show that, in its day, out-Newsradio'd Newsradio -- The Day After, Hill Street Blues, and the indelible image of Suzanne Somers' breasts jiggling free in a terry-cloth top.

But these days, great television moments are few and far between. The networks are too busy playing it safe. And playing it safe is the last thing any network should do when it's losing viewers by the truckloads.

So the spirit of my lost innocence, here's my prescription on how TV can win me back and stop sapping my will to live:

  • Kill Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, David Caruso and Tony Danza.

    "Ha, ha, ha," you're probably saying. "Crazy James is speaking metaphorically again."

    No. No, I'm not. I want the four of them dead. Better that, than on my TV in another third-rate program.

    And let it be a warning to all the rest: Stars don't make hit TV shows, hit TV shows make stars. I'd much rather see a new show with fresh faces and fresh ideas than watch a warmed-over TV hack try for the umpteenth time to catch lightning in a bottle once more by playing the same character he did years before.

    And while you're at it, can someone please put a horse's head in Mark Harmon's bed? Thanks. You're sweethearts.

  • Watch Everybody Loves Raymond and learn.

    If there's a show that could serve as the blueprint for putting together a great sitcom, Raymond is it. It may not offer a groundbreaking format, but Raymond is quality television of the highest order.

    Take a stand-up comedian -- in this case, Ray Romano -- with a unique take on everyday life, add clever writing that complements and expands his shtick, and plop down an impressive ensemble cast (Peter Boyle, Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, and Brad Garrett), and you've got the makings of classic TV.

    Unlike most other shows, Raymond doesn't offer any throwaway characters, no cardboard-cutout roles we've seen a dozen times before. The comedy on Raymond comes not from wacky situations, but from the characters' personalities.

    Imagine that.

  • Watch The Wayans Brothers and learn.

    Boys, if there's a textbook example of how not to make a sitcom, this is it. It's so cliched, so stereotypical, and so devoid of originality that I sincerely believe this is the sort of show that makes even the most decent of white folks rue the day Lincoln freed the slaves.

    If karma truly existed in this world, the entire Wayans clan would have been devoured by cannibals in the Amazon by now. And that includes you too, Keenen.

  • Don't be afraid to do something big.

    What the hell happened to the mini-series? I not talking about four-hour TV movies spread over two nights (hello, Merlin...). I'm talking epics: Roots, Lonesome Dove, The Winds of War, The Bastard, Shogun. Damn-the-odds romance. Edge of your seat cliffhangers. Unwieldy 12-hour entertainment extravaganzas that keep me glued to my set. Those series were the original must-see TV.

    Why Tom Hanks' wonderful mini-series From the Earth to the Moon wasn't on a major network befuddles me. How networks could let a story like Stephen King's The Green Mile go by without a whisper is a crime. Yes, they're expensive, and they screw up the pasty-faced network programmers' carefully calculated prime-time line-ups, but it's all worth it -- the mini-series is one of the rare occasions when network TV gets to make a huge impression.

    I couldn't tell you a blessed thing about the most recent episode of The Pretender, but I still remember Kunta Kinte's fighting in vain for freedom, Pug Henry's search for his son, and the friendship of Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae. And dammit, I want more moments like that.

    Any network suit worth his salt oughta be calling a Curtis Hanson, a Martin Scorsese, a Larry McMurtry, a Scott Turow or a John Sayles with an offer of a cast of their choice, a dumptruck full of money and a challenge to do something that pushes the bounds of TV.

    Oh sure, every now and then you'll get stillborn drek like Amerika, but as long as the suits remember that Kris Kristofferson must not get within sniffing distance of any future project, they can lessen the risk. Now isn't the time to get chintzy, boys. Go the extra mile.

  • Admit it: You can't please everybody.

    My biggest complaint with TV is that network execs too often pander to the tastes of middle America. They seem to have gotten it into their heads that folks in Peoria are all brain-addled senior citizens on Prozac, easily offended housewives or thick-fingered Rotarians who need to have anything hinting of nuance drilled into their dense skulls.

    You'd think the TV powers-that-be would have learned from the success of Seinfeld... not every character has to be "likable" for a show to be successful. Just because a show is "too New York" and "too Jewish" doesn't mean people who aren't Jewish and don't live within a hair's breadth of Manhattan won't laugh.

    And while you're at it, ditch the concept of "family programming." These days, "family" simply equates to "as bland as possible." Which explains ABC--the family-friendly network--and its nightly parade of banality.

    The best comedy exploits human frailty and is rarely politically correct. Don't be afraid to offend our delicate sensibilities, boys! If you build it funny, we will come, regardless.

There you have it. Maybe the viewers won't flock to the network in droves, maybe it will confuse and alarm them, maybe my strategy would guarantee a big, fat Buffalo Bills-like failure. But at least, it'd be different, and in this day and age, that's endorsement enough.

So get cracking, you boys in the cruel glass-and-steel network towers! Make life better for America. Make life better for me. And most of all, make life better for poor old Bill.


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