LIKE MASTURBATION, TV gets endlessly condemned at the same time it's almost universally enjoyed. But just as glad-handing has lost some of its stigma lately, it seems TV is not perceived as the irredeemably dangerous drug the high-minded once thought it was. At least that's the opinion of three major magazines, which in recent weeks have trumpeted the notion that we're in a televisual Golden Age.
Taking its usual consumer-oriented, populist tack, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover feature on October 20 giving "10 Reasons TV Is Better Than The Movies." Count 'em off: Women Thrive On TV; We Care More About TV Characters; TV Does Better With Drama; In TV, The Writer Rules; TV Is More Fun To Talk About; TV Deals With "Mature Themes" More Maturely; TV Is More Convenient; TV Does More With Less Money; James Burrows Does TV (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, and three new shows this season); and On TV, You Can Change The Channel. Writer Bruce Fretts's points are convincing and well supported--but we don't doubt that, with a little help from Hollywood, EW could devise a cover package on why we should all be rushing back to the multiplex.
Two days later, The New York Times Magazine, which has been attempting to shed its stuffy image, ran Charles McGrath's 10-page article that heartily agreed with EW. He theorizes that "more than movies, theater or even in some ways books, television drama is a medium for writers." And since he's editor of The New York Times Book Review, I guess we're supposed to pay attention.
Comparing TV drama's realism to the fiction of Theodore Dreiser and the art of Edward Hopper, he gives the medium props for addressing matters like work, class, and the working class--stuff that Hollywood avoids like the plague these days. He also points out that TV shows can be more daring and creative than mainstream films because there are fewer dollars--or people's heads--riding on their success. But we'd take issue with his claim that commercials "have not improved over the years." On the contrary, we often find that they're the best thing on.
Last and least is the December issue of Vanity Fair, with a cover featuring the stars of E.R. and Friends--but, thank God, they spared us yet another simpering interview with those Friends folks. Editorially, the analysis goes like this: "Regardless of what you may feel about television at any moment, in any era, we are what we watch. And, moreover, what we watch is us." Whoa. Actually, the scraps of text and a compendium of shows and stars listed by category ("Gumshoes," "Men In Uniform," "Lawyers," "Moms," "Kids") are inconsequential alongside a massive photo spread that reassembles the cast of Dallas along with that holy trinity of news anchors, Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings (apparently some nominees--Johnny Carson, Roseanne Barr--couldn't or wouldn't pose, and were paid tribute by cartoonists). The only currently running shows to make it into VF's Hall of Fame are The Simpsons (rightfully so) and, inexplicably, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (Dave is conspicuously absent).
We'll withhold final judgment on whether TV really is cool until The New Yorker devotes an entire issue to the topic. (Hey--with James Wolcott presiding, how bad could it be?) Meanwhile, in the midst of all this hoopla over the small screen, would we be too stodgy in suggesting, like that old PSA, that people turn off the tube and pick up a novel? Suggested cover feature for a future issue of EW: "The Book--It's Back!"