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

Why The Hell Do We Watch TV Anyway?

The Case For Putting A Bullet in the Thrice-Damned Box. An old college chum sent a note recently that hit on a peculiar problem. "My, you guys are great writers," he wrote. "I wish you wrote about something I gave a fuck about."

Something other than television.

I have come around to that point of view myself. Why bother with television, considering what it has to offer?

Television is in a bad Jimmy-Carteresque, Malaise-Daze funk. Look at the wreckage of the Fall '99 season -- Action, Cold Feet, Harsh Realm, Odd Man Out, The Mike O'Malley Show, Mission Hill, Ryan Caufield: Year One, Snoops, Work With Me. All canceled, or about to be, and before Christmas, too.

How did we get to the point where Regis Philbin -- Regis Philbin! -- is hailed as the savior of a network that just one year ago was hanging by its toenails? Here's a better question: When did it become impossible to muster anything approximating excitement over a television program?

The answer -- if there is an answer -- is elusive. It's become more and more difficult to remember when. For me, there was no seminal moment, no light on the Road to Damascus. I would call it a long chain of abuses and usurpations. Abuses of credulity and good taste. Usurpations of time.

Not so very long ago, television critics wrote about "appointment television." There were so many good shows, viewers faced a serious dilemma of which one to watch and which one to tape.

Sure, the embers are stirred from time to time. X-Files still holds my interest. I hear this year may be that show's last. I guess that will be one less show I will care about watching. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is fun. Regis -- Regis! -- is always a pleasure. Beyond that, few of the new shows -- supposedly good ones like Now and Again -- have captured my attention beyond a couple of episodes.

Is this year better or worse than years past? One could make the case that this season is neither better nor worse. Last year was just as bad. And the year before that. If the definition of insanity is to repeat the same behavior expecting different results, then the TV business is, as my pappy used to say, crazier than a shithouse rat. Every year bad shows die quickly; every year the networks repeat the process of selecting the same bad shows.

But wasn't this year supposed to be different? The dawn of the millennium was to herald a new Golden Age of Television. That's what I read, anyway. There was this odd consensus among the TV critics that Fall '99 would be the best season in a long, long time.

Quoth David Wild of Rolling Stone: "Get ready for the best pack of new TV shows you're likely to see this century."

Chimed Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Examiner: "After several of the darkest seasons in network programming history, we're about to enter the fall with more quality shows than ever. Life in TV Land won't be so simple anymore.... In the new fall season, it'll be raining quality."

And so on.

Well, now is the winter of our discontent.

I had my doubts about the new season from the moment the new lineups were announced back in the spring. The new season impressed me with its lack of diversity -- and I'm not talking about race. Of the 38 new shows, a dozen of them were about the trials and tribulations of high school or college. Then there was the an especially unoriginal crop of clones and knockoffs -- Ally and Third Watch, and the execrable Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

But I really knew we were in trouble when I read this, in Wild's rundown of the new season in Rolling Stone's Fall TV Preview issue: "What makes this season different from other seasons is the high percentage of high school hijinks, the plethora of hot moms and the outbreaks of high ambition... By the end of this year, you may feel like you've spent more time in high school than when you were in high school."

Four years were enough, thank you kindly. So the new offering of shows was mostly derivative, homogeneous, self-parodying and only occasionally clever. It's a postmodern melange. Only the channel numbers are different.

Why didn't these shows -- especially the shows aimed at the Generation Y set -- catch on? Maybe demographics is not destiny. The youth audience that network executives had hoped to capture either never arrived or were smart enough not to stick around. Maybe the growing lament over our youth-driven entertainment culture is a load of hooey. Maybe the shows were just downright bad.

The network people must see this, surely, but do they understand what it means? I'm not sure. Their focus is on damage control -- slowing the exodus of viewers to the promised land of cable and DVD and satellite and the Net. Every waking moment is spent pondering what may be done to stop the erosion of market share. The week before last, it was the young, hip ensemble sitcom. Then came the fast-paced law-cop-medical drama. This week, the high-stakes game show. Next week?

Memo to TV execs. Re: Next Week's Big Thing. Two words: Televised executions.

"This is a terrifying time in television," Jamie Tarses told a writer not too long ago. Soon after, she was escorted off the ABC lot and her head shot was distributed to the guard posts with "Do Not Admit" written in large block letters across the top.

Tarses is out of work today largely because she insisted on developing Friends knock-offs at the expense of all other programming. Tarses convinced the men who hired her that she understood the New Sensibility. She did not. Instead of being part of the Solution, she was part of the Problem. And that is why today she is talking to herself and feeding pigeons with the bums on the Santa Monica pier.

For me, the most damning evidence to undermine the critical gasbagging about "the best new season in years" is the story of a show that didn't make it on the fall schedule: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

Tad Friend wrote about it in The New Yorker in September. It's as much about the networks' steady, self-propelled slide into mediocrity as it is about Lynch and his ill-fated show.

Here was an original series, quirky in Lynch's typically quirky way. As Friend tells it, the show had the early, enthusiastic support of ABC execs. They were willing to put up lots of money. But then, all of a sudden, the programming powers that be got it into their heads that maybe Lynch was a little too quirky, a little too original.

Too slow, the suits told Lynch.

Trust me, Lynch replied.

What the hell does the thing with the guy by the dumpster mean? And who's the funny looking broad?, the suits asked.

All in good time, Lynch assured.

But in the battle for creative control, the network has the final answer. It's a cliche that television is not a medium given to taking risks. The cliché also happens to be true.

The greatest comment in Friend's piece comes from UPN President and CEO Dean Valentine. "The networks' main problem is that under perceived pressure from advertisers they're all chasing the 18-to-34 demographic," he said. "Way too many shows are Friends clones -- urban, affluent, twenty-seven-year-old yuppies who wear black knit shirts and just want to get laid. Most of America doesn't fit that bill, and so they've defaulted to watching cable."

Which is absolutely right. And 5,000 or so scintillating words later, Friend gets to the punchline: ABC passed on Lynch's show in favor of Kevin Williamson's Wasteland, a show about six twentysomethings living in New York City, wearing black knit shirts trying to get laid.

Wasteland, of course, was canceled after two episodes.

Which brings us back to the big questions: When did it become impossible to muster anything approximating excitement over a television program? Is television worth caring about anymore?

I won't even hazard a guess as to the first. Five hundred years from now, when everyone is far gone on Soma or enslaved by cruel machines of our own devising, some intrepid cultural historian will pinpoint the precise moment that television's creative people lapsed into complete contempt for their audience.

And the second? Is television worth giving a fu... ah, caring about? I think my college chum has it right. No, of course not. Don't be absurd! It's television, for Chrissakes. Life is short, and there are so many better things to do -- books to read, sights to see, love to make.

And that, Regis, is my final answer.


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