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Guide Us Not Into Temptation

Since the Victorians invented nostalgia people have been looking to the past wistfully. They see there better times -- the Good Old Days, as they say. It's obvious, of course, that the Good Old Days weren't always good, and in general things are better now. For example, there were things like polio, and smallpox, and influenza; the grippe, dropsy, and Charles Dickens. Also a complete lack of indoor plumbing for many years. And entertainment often consisted entirely of reading those books you had to spend high school hacking your way through like Pizarro in South America. Books like The Iliad and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Sometimes, though, just sometimes, that nostalgic feeling is appropriate. There are things that have doubtlessly changed for the worse. For example, William J. Bennett continues to have access to writing implements despite having shown many times over that he is not going to use them to stab himself through the temple. Original Coca-Cola was a truly great soft drink and deserves to be missed. And, when it comes right down to it, isn't Istanbul a step down from Constantinople? And isn't Byzantium really better than either?

For another example, there's TV Guide.

Sure, it's always made Reader's Digest sound as if it were written by Marx and Engels. Yes, it makes even Pope John Paul II look as counter-cultural as Iggy Pop. That's okay -- every magazine needs its voice, even if that voice is hidebound like a sun-dried and vacuum-packed tortoise. As long as it's well-written, as long as it's entertaining -- that's okay.

But over the last year TV Guide has pushed us into waxing sore nostalgic. We find ourselves longing for the halcyon days when the magazine's TV critic, Bob MacKenzie, was so awesomely esteemed he had his own Hirschfeld caricature. We pick up the newest issue and our eyes dim with the memory of when the editorial content of the magazine was split between the front section and the back section. We recall lucid prose, probing columns, analysis, reports, and comprehensible typography. We even think fondly of Jeff Jarvis, Mr. MacKenzie's poor brain-addled replacement. And, for some reason, we think of the taste of a crumb of madeleine.

There the magazine is in our mailbox every week. And every week, TV Guide disappoints. Every week, it not only disappoints, it tries to top itself in disappointment. It's as if the editors can hear us when we sigh our inner voice sighs and think, Can it get any worse than this? The editors are replying, week in and week out, Yes, yes, it can get worse! Much worse!

What's worse than an article on an actor no one cares about? A whole list of actors no one cares about! What's worse than a whole list of actors no one cares about? Why, a whole list of facts no one cares about! Can it get worse? Sure -- how about this list of facts cribbed from Snopes.com? Lower! we cry, like the audience on The Price is Right, Lower! How about we plagiarize an episode guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer? How about we make that the entire issue?

Can it really get any worse? our tortured, feverish, subscribed for 156 weeks in a fit of stupidity brains scream in anguish. And we know the answer is a resounding: Of course! Fuckin' A!

In the past fifty-two weeks of TV Guide they have devoted about fifty issues to lists of one kind or another. The Top Ten Shows of All Time. The Top One Hundred Funniest TV Moments. The Top Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Half-hour Pilots to Watch on Crack. The Sixteen Sexiest Stars. The Ten Commandments. The Twelve Steps. The Top Ten Top Ten Lists. And more.

All of this despite the following facts.

  1. Lists are a sure sign of editorial laziness. Pick a topic, any topic, assign some hack writer from under your desk to scribble up an introduction, get a bunch of other word processing geeks to wake up before noon and write a few witty (if you've inhaled too much nail polish vapor) blurbs ("Alyssa Milano is a sizzler."), annoy the archivists into getting some timely stock photos. And poof, like magic, you have twenty pages of unreadable swill with which to fill out your ungodly quota of forty pages a week. Then you can go back to your nap.

  2. Lists are stupid. Their only purpose is to have people read them and say, "I agree with you that the episode of Leave It To Beaver dealing with Wally's anal leakage problem was a classic, but you left out the fine show from the last season of BJ and the Bear wherein the Bear faces up to his addiction to painkillers. And what was the Testicular Cancer episode of Seinfeld doing in your list? That show sucked!"

  3. Lists are boring. Their cadence could put a speed freak to sleep. Blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah-blah-BLAH. "As Emma Peel she had 'M' appeal -- as in men appeal. No one filled out a catsuit better." Excuse us while we try and get the key imprints out of our foreheads from collapsing on our keyboard.

  4. Lists are overdone. Because editors are lazy creatures -- especially editors faced with the daunting challenge of overseeing forty whole pages of content a week (about five of which are advertisements) -- and because editors are generally stupid, boring people, nearly every magazine has devolved to the point of including a list of some sort at some point. We have come to expect this from Cosmopolitan, which, after all, has a whole lot of pages -- some of which aren't even ads! -- and which must stretch two whole concepts -- How to Get a Man! How to Keep a Man! -- across twelve issues a year. But with digital satellite subscribers now being treated to nearly 500 channels of TV programming, TV Guide is having trouble finding topics to cover. So we get more lists.

Lists are bad enough. But they can be made much more evil. By making a list of Television Urban Legends, say. Anyone who has been on the Web for more than a week has probably wandered over to Snopes.com to check out all those wonderful stories: Did Groucho really tell Johnny Carson to screw Zsa Zsa Gabor with his cigar -- in the butt? Not content with simply giving a URL for this wonderful site, though, TV Guide's editors chose to repurpose Snopes' content. Now, it's entirely possible that no one at TV Guide has ever seen Snopes -- hell, we'd be willing to believe that no one at TV Guide has ever even been on the Web -- but the coincidence is pretty startling anyway. And apparently more strapped for content than Chasey Lain, TV Guide ran not one but two issues covering these ancient chestnuts. Wow -- you mean Frank Zappa isn't the son of Mr. Greenjeans? But what about the song?

Borrowing this topic wasn't enough for the folks at TV Guide, though. Thinking, it seems, that there might yet be one Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan who had not yet found the Internet and the 1331 hits Alta Vista vomits forth when given the search string +"buffy the vampire slayer" +"episode guide", the editors green-lighted their very own, not to be confused with any of the 1331 other episode guides, episode guide to Buffy. Oh, but wait, the TV Guide guide had value add -- they rated each episode. With up to five stakes. Insert your own "someone please kill those responsible in a manner associated with vampires" joke here.

So the feature articles have been in a slump bad enough to make even Bobby Bonilla weep and return his paycheck uncashed. Sadly, the regular columns have not fared much better.

Every week Susan Stewart lists her Hits and Misses. And every week she gushes over Very Special Episodes and Important Miniseries but warns us away from shows that might hurt the kiddies. The next time we want a housewife's opinion, we'll ask one.

A whole page each issue is given over to recounting last week's soap opera happenings just in case you didn't make it to the supermarket to cash in your food stamps and pick up the latest Soap Opera Digest. I doubt whether anyone can tell if this column is written weekly or simply reprinted; see how much can you retain of prose like "Victor one-upped Jack's offer to salvage Jabot. Duncan revealed his strange habit to Marlena. Dorian's courtroom confession had repercussions throughout Port Llamedos." See that? You probably didn't even notice that I repeated that sentence about Victor.

Phil Mushnick, rabid hater of all things popular about sports and anti-professional wrestling stooge, gets a whole page to himself, too, and I'm pretty sure that's who he's talking to. Each week he rants unamusingly about sports commentators, sports coverage, commercials starring sports players, off-season antics of sports players and commentators, and how much he hates Vince McMahon. The only sport he actually writes about in terms of the sport itself is soccer, which he doesn't like either. In fact the only thing Mushnick seems to like is commentators who don't comment. If only he would take his own advice.

J. Max Robins writes about things anyone with any media connection at all -- be it newswire, CNN, or carrier pigeon -- knows and already has decided not to care about. Since he is the scholar of the bunch, he gets a page and a half, but since his subjects are not photogenic -- Dan Rather, Roseanne, Tailwind -- he gets newsprint pages. This makes them more worthwhile for their intended purpose, which is as an adjunct to the Charmin. Please don't squeeze the stuffed shirt!

And then we have Matt Roush. Matt Roush, who now helms possibly the most important page in TV Guide. Matt Roush, the TV Guide critic.

Where once upon a time Bob MacKenzie would gently lead us through the steps he took forming his opinion of a show, where once Jeff Jarvis did bumble along amiably saying yea or nay to this series or that, now Matt Roush stomps around, crankily and without humor, liking little and yet disliking little as well. And where Mr. MacKenzie or Jeff would cover one show per column, Roush manages to spew about two shows -- with a sidebar taking up space and discussing yet another show. Which means each usually quasi-favorable commentary counts out at about six words.

Well, anyone can manage a thoughtful and thorough critique in six words. Something like "Matt Roush is a lousy writer" might suffice. Perhaps "Matt Roush has no worthwhile opinions" might also do. But we like "Matt Roush scrawls like Phil's ass."

Except Phil's ass rarely gets published in a major magazine.

These sins all add up to a pretty impressive list of transgressions against any deity. But, as the man says, insult is added to injury. In addition to the content quality degrading like John Candy's corpse in a lime pit, the magazine's production quality as been dragging as well. Simple things like copyediting -- the opening sentence of the Guide's recent Pamela Anderson interview used "you're" for "your," a mistake we shudder to find in e-mail from boneheaded cretins, let alone in a national publication -- and typography -- anyone who hasn't figured out that a sans serif typeface should not be used for large blocks of text either suffers from severe hyperthyroidism or designs Web pages for a living -- simple things like this are beyond the grasp of the editors at TV Guide. Too bad we can't put names to mock with these thankless job descriptions, because the magazine's masthead is missing in action.

Which might be the only intelligent thing about the TV Guide these days. Would you want your name associated with this offal?

Interestingly, the decline of TV Guide comes at a time when the magazine's competition is sure to increase. More homes are being wired for digital cable and more people are opting for digital satellite service and both of those come with their own on-screen programmable channel guides. Why run up to the bathroom to dig out the latest copy of TV Guide from the magazine pile to see what this movie starring Jeff Goldblum is called and who directed it when you can call that information up right on your TV while you watch? And with WebTV merging the Internet with your set, you can get the director's home phone and call him and tell him to please kill himself before he directs again -- all without leaving your chair, which is, of course, the ambition of every American.

Can TV Guide remain a readable and viable publication in an environment like that -- an environment which is increasingly common? Well, at the rate it's going lately, TV Guide can't even compete with toilet paper, much less with our memories of what it used to be. Nowadays while heading for the bathroom we're more likely to pick up Proust than the TV Guide. And that should tell you something.


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