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More reality; dumb-coms; and PBS's "Lathe of Heaven"

By Robert David Sullivan

AUGUST 14, 2000:  There are more reality shows to get to this week, but first a word from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who spoofed Big Brother-type shows long before CBS stood for "C'mon, Bashful, Smile!" The screenwriters of EdTV are in this week's TV Guide, asking, "Whatever happened to the concept of being entertained by professional entertainers -- people who are more talented than our friends and family?"

Their essay came out during a political convention, so at first I dismissed Ganz and Mandel as naive. After all, Americans hate to be governed by people who are more talented than their friends and family. It's hardly surprising that we would dispense with professional entertainers.

Then I remembered that I'm a staunch supply-sider when it comes to pop culture. That is, I never blame the consumer when a dozen hit movies have the same plot or half the current bestsellers involve, say, heroines who like to be spanked. Audiences are simply choosing from what's in front of them, and artists may not be responding to sociopolitical trends at all. Consider TV Westerns, which filled half the prime-time schedule during the late 1950s. It's possible that the Western genre was an indirect way to address Cold War anxieties, or that complicated civil-liberties issues made Americans nostalgic for frontier justice. But you can't overlook the fact that Westerns became popular at the same time that movie studios began to get involved in TV -- and that it was a lot cheaper to use leftover sets from John Wayne pictures than to create contemporary street scenes.

So it's possible that reality shows are all over the dial because security cameras have helped to eliminate the idea of private lives, or because we feel so alone in our modem-equipped homes that we need to verify the existence of other people out there. Or maybe reality shows are just cheap to produce and TV executives can't figure out what else to put on. Viewers can't be faulted for getting sick of other genres (i.e., the sit-com), and they're not necessarily crying out for more reality shows just because they pick the best ones out of the current litter. Maybe reality shows are popular because there are a lot of them, not the other way around. At any rate, when the craze dies out, I'll enjoy reading all the nonsense about why Americans don't want to face reality shows anymore.

If reality is so hot, why are the most unrealistic examples of the genre the most popular? Survivor, the biggest success, is so skillfully scripted that it should be eligible for a Best Drama Emmy. Then there's American High (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox), which is a lot closer to cinéma-vérité -- and a lot less enlightening about human behavior. It follows 14 high-schoolers in suburban Chicago over the course of the 1999-2000 school year, most of them getting ready for college. Producer R.J. Cutler (who did the political documentary The War Room) doesn't rig the show with contrived situations, but neither does he prompt the kids to talk about interesting things. In the premiere episode, one girl walks along a lake and says, "I wish I could walk on water." Her equally nondescript boyfriend replies, "I bet you could. If you really wanted to do it, I bet you could." I wish I could understand the point of this scene, but I bet I never will.

So far, everyone is comfortable on camera, and several of the kids have aspirations in the performing arts. It's possible that all American teens are extroverted these days, at least when they're on the right prescription drugs, but I would have liked to hear some explanation of how the show's cast was chosen. By the way, American High's aimless style didn't wow the Nielsen households: its premiere was buried in the ratings by Big Brother.

HBO's America Undercover series, one of the better examples of narration-free reality TV, has a new installment called "Drinking Apart: Families Under the Influence". There have been so many fictional films about alcoholism, most of them with over-the-top acting, that this subdued documentary doesn't leave a strong impression. Most of the footage comes from therapy sessions at a family clinic, so we can only imagine the participants at their worst. Still, statements that might sound phony in a script have a ring of truth here, as when a woman matter-of-factly tells her husband, "I feel in love with you as an addict, and I'm not sure I'm in love with you sober."

"Drinking Apart" comes from filmmakers who clearly don't want to call attention to themselves, but that approach can make us more conscious of the minor artistic flourishes. Take the occasional background music. When we're introduced to an African-American family, we hear a wailing saxophone. A white professional couple appear to upbeat piano music reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally. And a Latino family are accompanied by AM-radio dance music. But if the point of the documentary is to show that alcoholism (described as the "liquid homewrecker") is similarly destructive to families at all income levels and in all ethnic groups, why not use a common musical theme -- or even mix and match the cliché'd musical styles? Instead, "Drinking Apart" turned out to be a rather expensive program for me. Every time I saw the lite-jazz white couple, I started to mix a cosmopolitan, but as soon as that saxophone returned, I had to throw my cocktail down the sink.

I never experience such mood swings during Michael Moore's The Awful Truth (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo), which barely qualifies as reality TV. One of the funnier segments this season chronicled the "sibling rivalry" between governors George W. Bush of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida over who can execute the most people. Moore sent a squad of cheerleaders to perform outside a Texas prison as George W. cemented his lead with another lethal injection ("We're number one!"). The crowd of death-penalty proponents seemed to appreciate the acrobatics and miss the irony. Another episode followed up on several incidents in which police officers shot to death "armed" African-Americans who were actually flashing such benign objects as wallets and candy bars. Moore responded with a "wallet buyback" program, going up to Harlem and offering to replace dark-colored billfolds with day-glo orange pouches. The New York Police Department was not amused when Moore dumped hundreds of "dangerous" black wallets in front of a precinct house.

Obviously, The Awful Truth is slanted to the left, but there's no reason the Fox News Channel can't come up with a conservative version of the show -- if one of its fat-ass commentators can be persuaded to leave the TV studio and get out onto the streets.

Aside from reality shows, this summer's TV line-up features a plethora of bad-taste sit-coms. But there's little evidence that they're being assembled by anyone with more talent than our friends and family.

In particular, the Howard Stern-produced Son of the Beach (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX) is a plagiarism suit waiting to happen. Each double entendre -- and there are no other kinds of jokes on this Baywatch parody -- has already been related by millions of young men, each of them convinced he was the first to notice the implications of "B.J." as a woman's nickname. Son of the Beach does go a step farther, naming one character B.J. Cummings, but I shudder to think how many snickering Stern fans have had to be told by their buddies, "Dude, you're missing half the joke. Her last name is Cum-mings!"

Thanks to e-mail, anyone can authenticate the dirty jokes he's been sharing with his friends. So it's only a matter of time -- certainly before those hypothetical typewriting monkeys accidentally produce Hamlet -- until some office worker discovers that every single line in an episode of Son of the Beach was in his last AOL missive. Fortunately for Stern, he'll have the truth on his side when he points out that no intellectual theft has occurred.

Manhattan, AZ (Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on USA), a crude version of Northern Exposure with a big-city sheriff moving to the desert instead of a big-city doctor moving to Alaska, is more rewarding, but it still tries too hard to push the envelope. The writers overcompensate for the absence of a laugh track, making sure the most thick-headed lout realizes that, despite all the deaths on this show, this is a comedy. And like too many sit-coms without laugh tracks, Manhattan, AZ is narrated by its central character. His patter seems to include leftovers from the sophomoric Son of the Beach ("I wanted to get a stiff one, but I decided to get a drink instead") and the politically incorrect Strangers with Candy ("Senior citizens were dying faster than people in the grandstand during a Third World soccer game").

Once in a while, a genuinely surprising and funny image pokes through all this nonsense, such as a menagerie of three-legged pets in the premiere episode (the result of a rampage by a one-eyed coyote). Much of the show's potential comes from its appealing cast, including Brian McNamara as the incorruptible sheriff and Chad Everett (Medical Center) as an unscrupulous mayor who's also a has-been TV star. If they're allowed to grow into their roles a bit more, Manhattan, AZ could become that rarest of TV creatures, a show with bad taste and a good heart.

WGBH-TV claims that the 1980 sci-fi film Lathe of Heaven, which is based on a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, is "the most-requested program in public-television history." One reason, no doubt, is that the film has been shown so infrequently since its premiere. But Lathe is being released on video later this month, and WGBH is jumping the gun by airing it next Tuesday at 8 p.m., along with a Bill Moyers interview with Le Guin.

The two-hour film is something of a cross between Ordinary People and the Twilight Zone episode starring Billy Mumy as a brat who can make his worst wishes come true. Everyone's favorite troubled young man, Bruce Davison (a few years after training rats to kill in Willard), is plagued by dreams that not only come true but also change the past. During a long rainy spell in Seattle, he dreams of a sunny day; when he awakens, everyone else insists there hasn't been a cloud over the city for two years. Davison sees a psychiatrist who tries to harness the young man's power, with disastrous results.

Lathe of Heaven is creepy and thought-provoking, and it makes lemonade out of its limited budget. Like Night of the Living Dead, it conveys global disaster with a single-digit cast, and the sets and costumes are appropriately disorienting. (The film appears to take place in a near future of modernist architecture and radiation-suit-inspired fashion.) The screenplay -- co-authored by Murphy Brown creator Diane English! -- balances the usual sci-fi ponderousness with flashes of wit. (Psychiatrist: "Neurotics build castles in the sky, and psychotics live in them." Suspicious bureaucrat: "And psychiatrists collect the rent.")

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