The Book Club

I watch worthless reruns. Do you?

Dear Mark,

Please don’t take this the wrong way. This is the third bookclub I’ve done. Sometimes, in the interest of fruitful discussion, I’ve found it best to throw down the sword and seek points where the two duellists turn out to agree. But in our case, since we so heartily agree that Gabler’s book is less than worthy, our challenge is to seek grounds for disagreement–even, perhaps, to pick that sword back up and draw blood. I don’t say this in the interest of entertainment. Agree though we do on so much, I think we also approach this topic differently, as any two human beings would, and it’s worth bringing those differences out.

First off. I suggested in the first entry that entertainment (we have only two days left, and for reasons of time I’m afraid we’ll have to go with Gabler’s so-broad-it-courts-nonsense term) can act as a toxin. I truly believe this. On the other hand, I may have a death wish, because I consume quite a bit of it. I mean quite a bit. Movies, gossip columns, worthless reruns. A dog tv miniseries about an Iowa woman searching for her kidnapped child–all the way through. My mind is polluted, Mark. I’m lazy. I sit back, push the mute button on my critical faculties, and enjoy. Often. With pleasure. Uncomplicated pleasure. I dare you to say the same. You bring up the old “everything has degenerated into irony” argument. I briefly worried about this myself, back in, say, 1994. But Seinfeld is off the air, and it’s not clear to me that Quentin Tarantino casts such a large shadow. If I were so inclined, I would even suggest that the mood du jour is not irony but emotional sincerity (often faked, I admit)–visible in everything from Celine Dion to the teen show Dawson’sCreek to the geritol favorite Touched by Angel to the stupid ending of the mysteriously popular, risible There’s Something About Mary.

I would argue that sincerity is this year’s model, but that’s exactly the kind of argument I’d lilke to get beyond. The point I’d rather make is that it’s increasingly unclear to me how much “entertainment” reflects what Americans are thinking about; I think we’ve grown more sophisticated, and bored, and learned how to tune out. I considered writing some kind of TV coverage in the fall, for instance, and watched most of the new season pilots in advance. What struck me, besides the general shrillness and incompetence, was how nakedly these shows seemed to reflect calculated, heavily researched demographic guesses by the producers, and how totally they failed to strike a nerve.

TV network viewership is down. You might argue that people are being sorted and isolated in cable TV niche markets, that we no longer have a stable context in which to see how we relate to each other. Yeah, okay, this is a real problem. But there’s a yin and a yang to this process. On the plus side, TV no longer has the power to unite Americans in a false sense of homogenous solidarity. Hence the resort to desperate, force-fed staged moments of national emotion like the Sosa-McGwire lovefest, which people buy into but really did know was a hoax. We need TV less than ever, and it needs us more.

Isn’t this kind of exciting? I’m not saying, lighten up, everything’s fine, but don’t you want to analyze the new and ever-fluctuating specifics–the good news, and the bad news that’s actually news, instead of the old bad news, which will always be true, that TV is about coercion and selling? And anyway, even if The Food Network is a vehicle for selling citrus slicers, is it so harmful to people who tune in and learn about the different varieties of wild rice?

Also on the irony front. You graciously praised a piece I recently wrote about Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the 18th-century English/Irish playwright. My grateful thanks. In the course of writing that piece, I actually thought a lot about the issues we’re discussing this week. Sheridan’s most successful plays, it turns out, were winking and self-referential–clever words slapped onto a flimsy structure, with nothing holding it together but irony. Artistically speaking, they were pretty unambitious. They cannibalized genres that had been fresh a hundred years earlier, and everyone watching knew it. They shamelessly served up contemporary gossip, thus blurring the line between entertainment and life to a degree that would freak Neal Gabler out. Yet two hundred years later, they’re still esteemed, and performed, and perched up there in the canon. They’ve lasted, they’ve brought joy to people.

The point is that sometimes irony is good, sometimes not; it’s all in the details. One last swipe, and then I’m at your mercy. You bring up the example of Psycho, and feel depressed when you compare the original to the new context-less, ironic remake. I have two reactions to this. First, Hitchcock may be the shrewdest manipulator of audiences who has ever lived. I know I wouldn’t mind if he were reincarnated in the form of a 22-year-old fresh out of NYU. But was the original Psycho so much less toxic than the rehash? And are you sure you long for the day when an unprincipled genius held a whole country in his thrall?

The second reaction is–and here I may sound like a flippant Slate contrarian, but I don’t mean to–get real. The remake got panned, worse than panned. It’s not making money. In my opinion, it indicates little beyond a goof by Gus Van Sant (I think he’s amazingly overrated anyway, but that’s another story), and the executives who ok’d it. Again, I think this where we might differ in a mildly interesting way. I’m just not sure “entertainment” or what ever you want to call either dictates or reflects as much about American hopes, anxieties, etc. as it used to. The only people who still think otherwise are the executives who greenlight overcalculated sitcoms, and the occasional cultural critic. What I’d like to know is, what if anything has taken up residence in the vacuum–in the space where what you call entertainment’s “sway” power used to reside?