The Real Public Television

A week without a TV set sends us stalking the picture box

This week, I was going to write a column on The Lyon's Den, Miss Match, and the deplorable practice of letting lawyers raise their big blue eyes from case studies for a quick round of do-gooding or matchmaking. But then I moved and my television took a weeklong vacation, mummified in padding in the back of a giant truck.

During that period, my hapless spouse and I had plenty of time to discover how people lived before latching onto the glass teat: taking walks, going to see Alien in the movie theater instead of squinting at it on our 25-inch screen, negotiating an endless stream of repairmen.

We did not, however, turn into the kind of people who have some sort of revelation about the poisonous influence of TV. Instead, we ended up stalking television with an avidity normally associated with a Trekkie sniffing out a Patrick Stewart appearance in New York City. While in a pizza parlor one night, we ate up a promotion for the WB wherein we were exhorted to watch because there were so many pretty, pretty people to be seen. Not a single show name was mentioned during the wash of moody clips. The whole premise of the network promo was to stop, drop, and watch because these people were splendid specimens of human pulchritude. Rather than snicker because we had witnessed a brazen act of vapidity, we stared in awe; these people truly are superior beings and we're privileged to be able to look at them.

An argument for tort reform: Alicia Silverstone as the lawyer of love in 'Miss Match'
Justin Lubin
An argument for tort reform: Alicia Silverstone as the lawyer of love in 'Miss Match'

Another night, we were in a bar knocking back commercial after commercial for CBS's alleged Monday night "comedy" lineup, gaping dumbly as interchangeable henpecked husbands and shrill wives abused each other to the cackling Greek chorus we call a laugh track. And we were gripped with the yearning to have that playing on our television--the one in the moving truck. Being at the mercy of public television sets is not unlike being at the mercy of your PBS affiliate: You have no say in the programming; whatever you're watching will probably be interrupted so the powers that be can cudgel you with extortion attempts ("Give us $50 or we release Sarah Brightman to sing more Andrew Lloyd Webber songs!" sounds a lot like the bartender hinting that you should really order another round if you're going to be there for another hour); and you will always wonder if something better is on somewhere else.

Eventually, both TV and cable returned to us. For the first hour, we sat and flipped channels, as if to make sure none of them had gone away: ESPN, BBC America, Comedy Central.

Then I went back to the business of watching TV like normal: TiVoing shows from all over the dial and watching them whenever I wanted. There were programs I missed, but none of them were new ones. This has been a spectacularly dull fall season. The breakout hit this year is apparent--CBS's teen spiritual soaper Joan of Arcadia--but the rest of the new shows have blended into an undifferentiated mass of novel premises that really aren't--"He's Tarzan--only Xena's his aunt!"; "They're brothers who hate each other--but they play basketball!"; "She's a marshal--but not Jennifer Lopez!"

I may be hanging out with my friend, the television, in a different room in a new city these days, but the pictures look strangely the same. Miss Match is a shrewd divorce lawyer--who's also a cutely bumbling matchmaker. Lyon's Den, which is already on hiatus, gives us a crusading lawyer who sells his soul to an evil firm to fund his good works. Come back to us, Ally McBeal: All is forgiven.

With the TV off, I had plenty of time to consider the meaning of the medium. The conclusion I reached? I didn't miss any of the new shows. I only missed the ability to turn them off.

 
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