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The Boston Phoenix Not-So-Free TV

Plus, Kramer meets Kierkegaard

By Robert David Sullivan

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  The conventional wisdom, researched by thousands of stand-up comics, is that the most boring thing on television is golf. As bad as it is for spectators, ordinary players have it worse: golf is repetitive, time-consuming, and ridiculously expensive. Unfortunately, you can say the same thing about the best forms of television.

The "expensive" part of serious television watching did not occur to me while I was looking at my cable bill -- most people, I would wager, spend more money per month on scratch tickets. Rather, it struck me as I tried to do a little TV-related shopping, under the guise of looking for holiday gifts. I stopped at Borders Books, in downtown Boston, and went to the unexpectedly large television section. Keeping up with movies is simple: buy a new video guide every other year and that single volume will tell you the essentials of just about anything you might want to rent. But in order to familiarize yourself with the cast members and plots of just a half-dozen TV series, you might have to spend about $120 for episode guides of widely varying quality. Borders is full of them, including a new "authorized" Ally McBeal book that looks like an issue of Wired but reads like Tiger Beat. Any official episode guide is useless, of course, since it won't tell you which episodes suck. There are also updated guides to The Simpsons, Law & Order, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- and since all of those shows are still in production, you'll have to buy the books all over again in a couple of years. (Probably the best episode guide around, and one of the earliest examples of the genre, is Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion, which provides fascinating details about how Rod Serling was able to produce an often-brilliant show despite budget restrictions and the constant threat of censorship.)

Kevin Courrier & Susan Green's Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion (Renaissance Books, 368 pages, $17.95) covers the 205 episodes up to Benjamin Bratt's departure this spring, and it does point out some of the weaker installments. ("Hate," a January 1999 episode about a white-supremacist group, falls into this category.) Flipping through the book, I had a difficult time recalling many episodes based on the descriptions, but it must have been a hellish job to summarize these convoluted plots -- and the authors take care not to divulge the fourth-act twist that is often the most memorable moment in an L&O entry. As with most episode guides, we also get some behind-the-scenes dirt, most of it having to do with the high turnover in cast members. More than one actor was pushed out because he was too difficult to work with (George Dzundza was an egomaniac, and Michael Moriarty was just plain nuts), but Chris Noth was ultimately let go because he was too compatible with Jerry Orbach: there wasn't enough contrast between the two wise-cracking cynics.

The books about classic TV series are bad enough, but the cost of videos can lead one to conclude that it would be cheaper to take up wine appreciation. Borders has an extensive selection of TV videos, and I thought it would be a good idea to catch up with some series that I was too young to see at the time they first aired. The first one that came to mind was the British prime-time soap opera Upstairs, Downstairs, which won scads of awards, was probably the most popular thing on public television during the 1970s, and led to a wave of low-brow American imitations like Dallas and Dynasty. To a serious television buff, Upstairs, Downstairs may be the equivalent of an early Alfred Hitchcock film, or a film noir prototype like The Maltese Falcon. It's not rerun on any cable station (that might take valuable time away from The Brady Bunch), and you can't rent it from Blockbuster. But there it was at Borders: 663 minutes of Upstairs, Downstairs in a box set of videos priced at $149. (There was probably a Maltese Falcon for $14.95 in a bargain bin a few feet away.) Maybe I'd pay that much for my five favorite Hitchcock films, but I had to consider the possibility that I would watch 15 minutes of Upstairs, Downstairs and despise it. Maybe the series is as overrated as M*A*S*H, and I'd be stuck with a shelf full of second-rate Masterpiece Theatre. I already have at least a dozen videos that I've never opened, and those are from TV series that I like. So Upstairs, Downstairs remains a tantalizing mystery, at least until I find a winning scratch ticket on the subway.

Not that I'd have the time to immerse myself in Upstairs, Downstairs even if I love it. I'm sure I'll eventually make it through all of the "must-see" American films of the 20th century, and it wouldn't take long to hear cast recordings from all the Tony-winning musicals of the past 50 years, but I'm resigned to the fact that I'll never see most of the great TV shows that have aired during my lifetime. Gunsmoke was arguably the best Western on TV, but I doubt that anyone born after the Kennedy assassination is ever going to see all 518 hours -- more than 21 days of round-the-clock viewing -- of Marshal Dillon getting the drop on bad guys. Similarly, the nine-year run of The Beverly Hillbillies may have included as much as 43 minutes of pungent satire about American capitalism, but I'm not sifting through all 274 episodes to find them. At Borders, I decided to focus on The Fugitive (a reasonable total of 120 hours), which has all the hallmarks of a great long-running series -- compact storytelling, clever variations on a durable theme -- plus David Janssen's great minimalist acting style. Fifteen bucks got me two episodes: one a noirish story with Angie Dickinson and Robert Duvall and the other a timely episode about kids playing with guns that stars a 15-year-old Kurt Russell.

But never mind the classics -- who has time to keep tabs on current TV series? Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has generated more books and magazine articles than any recent movie outside of Star Wars. I catch an episode once every few months, and I recognize it as one of the better shows of its type (i.e., high-school sci-fi), but I haven't yet seen anything that would make me a committed viewer. Maybe I haven't found the right episodes, or I don't know enough about the show to appreciate the full irony of Buffy's temporary engagement to Spike.

It happens to the best of shows. I have one friend who couldn't understand all the fuss over The Sopranos because she saw only the episode set in Maine and found it slow-moving and short on character development. Those of us who had watched from the beginning saw the episode as an interesting change of pace from the noisy, in-your-face scenes in New Jersey. The installment also underscored how difficult it would be for Tony Soprano to extricate himself from mob life: even when he's with his teenage daughter visiting quiet college campuses, he finds himself having to deal with "family business." I convinced this friend that it was worth her time to give The Sopranos another chance, but I don't think I was as successful with another acquaintance who sampled The West Wing and saw the president of the United States (Martin Sheen) acting goofy because he took too many painkillers. This scene was pure comic relief on a show that is, on the whole, smartly written and subtly acted, but my friend will probably always think of The West Wing as dumb office sit-com along the lines of Spin City. And I can't blame him: I avoided Friends for years because I was so annoyed by a scene in which all the characters hum along to the theme of The Odd Couple.

A newer genre of TV-related books is the script collection, reflecting the once-radical belief that the utterances of George Costanza deserve to rest on the same bookshelf as those of Shakespeare's King Lear. The first two seasons of Seinfeld are preserved in book form, and John Cleese & Connie Booth's Complete Fawlty Towers remains a masterpiece of comic plotting. Now you can add The Frasier Scripts (Newmarket Press, 380 pages, $18.95), which includes 15 episodes from the past six seasons of the sit-com.

Frasier has definitely suffered from staleness and repetition, but when you boil the series down to a select number of episodes, it stands up to any farce on stage or screen. (The high writing standards of sit-coms like Frasier have practically extinguished the comedy genre on Broadway.) The Frasier Scripts has surprisingly few one-liners that work out of context; almost all the humor depends on our familiarity with the characters. How can a novice to the show understand how funny it is when Niles calls someone else "a ludicrous popinjay," in the episode "Mixed Doubles"? The book includes most of the most famous episodes, including "The Matchmaker," in which Frasier is understandably mistaken as gay, and "The Two Mrs. Cranes," in which Niles and Daphne pretend to be married. There's not much background accompanying the scripts, but the stage directions often make clear how the Frasier writers have come to rely on David Hyde Pierce's flair for physical comedy (". . . the fight quickly turns into an amusing, brilliantly choreographed rout, ending with Niles flat on the floor").

And on the subject of Seinfeld: one of the more unusual TV books out this season is Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing (Open Court, 216 pages, $15.95), in which 13 fans "who happen to be professional philosophers" interpret the sit-com through the eyes of such great thinkers as Kant, Sartre, and Wittgenstein. Edited by a King's College professor named William Irwin, this book sometimes comes off as "philosophy for dummies," and some of the parallels are silly: "Jerry, like Socrates, provokes his friends and his audience by bringing to mind subjects to which they would not ordinarily give much thought." But there are some gems in this uneven package of essays, such as Mark Conrad's "Plato or Nietzsche? Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld." Conrad uses the "Bizarro Jerry" episode (a favorite among contributors to this book) to argue that the discovery of their "exact opposites" means that the four main characters are "Platonic-like Forms, essences which are . . . exempt from the terrible march of time." Another essay uses the quartet to illustrate that one's identity can be defined only by one's interaction with others. But many of the points here could be made using any well-defined sit-com, and Irwin indirectly makes the case for the writers in this genre when he quotes Kierkegaard: "The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention." Your homework assignment is to imagine how Frasier and Niles Crane would react to that statement.

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