Wednesday, June 1, 2011

TV Reality

It's been a few years now since I worked in New York, and the Rome I worked in during the 70's has changed into another place. Living in an isolated Umbrian village of about 150 people, perhaps I'm out of touch with reality, i.e. the important things that go on in the world, although we do get to attend more funerals than most city dwellers do. Fortunately, we have the internet and Skype to keep in touch with people and happenings around the world. We also have satellite TV, which brings us another little window on the world. It's long been fashionable to disdain TV but, especially in the football off-season, I enjoy watching many of the shows, and have for years.

All my life, pundits on the right have complained of the liberal bias of the news media and Hollywood. They were right. After all, Edward R. Murrow was no Fascist sympathizer and one can fairly imagine his disdain for the Neo-Cons, were he around today. Unfortunately, he's not. For a time, I watched a large amount of cable TV news but increasingly, the cable channels seem more out of touch with reality than we are here in Acqualoreto.

Then there are the ”reality shows”. I haven't yet figured out why these shows are so named. Most seem to be elimination tournaments. Pseudo-celebrities pass their time trying to remain on a tropical island with other aspiring ”personalities”; other contestants aspire to work for Donald Trump, or be selected as a spouse, future model, fashion designer or bed partner. In others, people, hooked up to a lie detector, face embarrassing questions in front of their families, or attractive young people are challenged to put repulsive substances in their mouths and swallow. I suppose the common denominator, and plausible link to reality, is the competition of people willing to subject themselves to public humiliation for the prospect of winning money.

There are even too many comedy shows on television, but I'll have to pass on commenting on them since I've discovered that I'm allergic to laugh tracks, so for the most part, I'm left with the TV dramatic series.

Nearly all shows deal with crime, clearly the principal activity in the world. Murder is the favorite crime on TV, sometimes treated with a spectacular brutality, but more often with humor. The light hearted murder shows go back to before television, when crime magnets such as Sherlock Holmes and Mr. and Mrs. North had a merry time solving whodunits in books and movies. Over the years Ellery Queen, Hart to Hart and countless dozens of other TV series have mined this vein. One of my more recent favorites, Midsomer Murders, known in Italy as Inspector Barnaby, would appear to have depopulated all of southern England in its ten year run, but the characters and locales were delightful. My all-time favorite, Germany's Inspector Derrick, ran for twenty-four years, with just one writer, Herbert Reinecker, creating all 281 episodes. The series also furnished fascinating characters and locales around Munich. Horst Tappert, an ex-vaudeville song and dance man who played the Inspector, solved all those murders mostly by stalking the characters his intuition led him to suspect. The program featured little onscreen violence but a great deal of the darker side of human nature. In Italy, Terrence Hill, as Don Matteo, has been playing a parish priest in Gubbio for the past decade. The 144 episodes have, on average, included more than one homicide per show, which would appear to make scenic little Gubbio one of the most violent places on earth, with a murder rate exceeding that of the south of England, Detroit and Chicago combined.

The crime solvers have usually been private detectives or regular police but now and then a mystery writer gets into the act, as with Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) in Murder She Wrote, and currently Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion) in Castle. In addition to the FBI and the CIA, other specialized crime fighting units such as the NCIS, which may or may not exist in the real world, also see some action. Clearly, the world's preeminent profession, in the world of TV, is that of forensic medicine. While I do know one young man in that field, I never realized that he and his colleagues played such an important role in the war on crime. I believe it all started with Crossing Jordan, but they've spread to CSIs and NCISs all over the country, and now to Body of Proof. Even Inspector Barnaby and Castle went with the trend and got their own body disassemblers. Most of the corpse analyzer shows are similar, but one, CSI Miami, stands out. Not so much for its acting, writing or characters, but for its color. In my childhood, most color movies were in Technicolor, but if I remember correctly, Roy Rogers movies were shot in something called Trucolor, which featured everything in bright orange, with some contrasting aqua blue. These are the Miami Dolphins colors so it only seems right that a Miami crime show should replicate the old Trucolor hues, especially one starring the carrot-topped David Caruso.

In TV history, Dallas was the first show to take the continuing drama soap opera format to prime time. The format was upgraded by ER, which brought doctors to the forefront and good writers to the work behind the scenes. It also launched George Clooney's career. After years of ratings-boosting service, he faded into the sunset with his on-screen sweetheart Juliana Margulies. When ER finally ran out of juice, other medical shows like Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice followed, but their writers just couldn't seem to find much inspiration left in the clinical area, so those shows have triangulated between medicine, soap opera and soft-core porn. Other shows have taken a similar path but without the medicine. Sex and the City could be amusing; Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town a little less so, but then, there's no shortage of cheerfully lewd shows on SKY.

I've alluded to former complaints about the liberal bias in the media. Since the US lurched heavily to the right in recent decades, both the news shows and the entertainment shows have tried to accommodate the new public tastes. The past decade has brought us torture-as-entertainment shows including 24 and the various versions of NCIS. Although I've whole-heartedly embraced the lighter side of murder, I haven't yet adapted sufficiently to the new ethos to really enjoy 24.

More subtle right-wing inroads have come with Ayn Rand-inspired heroes such as Dr. House. Played brilliantly by Hugh Laurie, the British actor who was famous as the effete Bertie Wooster in the P.G. Wodehouse inspired series, Jeeves and Wooster, Dr. House is an egocentric, lame genius devoid of respect for rules, laws, feelings or etiquette. He perseveres to cure the most exotic illnesses heretofore unknown to man. Superman with a crutch! Despite the unreality of both the health care available and the excesses of the protagonist, the show usually manages to be entertaining.

Successful shows tend to be cloned and Lie To Me tries to build on the success of Dr. House. Another interesting British actor, Tim Roth as Dr Cal Lightman, hobbles around with the gait of a chimpanzee, though no explanation of this deformity is forthcoming, other than the unspoken desire to emulate Dr. House. His superhuman talent is to be able to tell if people are lying or telling the truth by looking at their faces, and this elite skill has earned him a huge cutting edge office and a bevy of doting beauties who put up with his crude ways and his House-like disavowal of law and manners. Among the adoring women is his partner, played by Kelli Williams, fresh from her role as the partner and wife of the creepy Bobby in The Practice. She risks being typecast as the abused partner. I prefer this show to Dr. House, mainly because the women are better looking, but the plots are also more imaginative. Too bad that Dr. Lightman's gorgeous ex-wife, Jennifer Beals, has moved to Chicago to be Police Commissioner on another new series, Chicago Code. The latter show seems to be yet another copycat, emulating Detroit 1-8-7, and it may turn out to be better than the one it copies. Both have a nice gritty feel to them and provide balanced accommodation to the prejudices of the left and right wing segments of the audience; racial equality on one hand and a healthy disregard for the niceties of the law on the other.

After crimefighters and doctors, the next most prominent TV profession would be lawyers. If the doctors and police tend to be the darlings of the right, we liberals tend to favor the lawyer shows. Series like The Defenders, The Practice, Boston Law and more recently, The Guardian and Raising the Bar (Avvocati a New York in Italy) have fairly regularly espoused a liberal democratic set of values. The Guardian, an otherwise interesting show, suffered by having a terminally unsympathetic character in the lead role, while Raising the Bar, which tempered its idealism with a strong infusion of cynicism, was a wonderful antidote to Fox News, and just too good to last. Now that George Clooney has come out of TV exile to sell coffee and Campari in Italy, his former ER love, Julianna Margulies has come back to star in The Good Wife as a lawyer married to a jailed Chicago politician. The shadowy side of the profession is on view here too but, again, the hearts of the protagonists are in the right place, even if other body parts tend to wander.

I love all these shows but my favorite of the genre had to be Judge John Deed. Half a century ago when I applied to law school, I didn't know where it would lead. It didn't lead anywhere, as I switched to architecture at the eleventh hour, but had I joined that oft-maligned profession, I couldn't have imagined a more appealing role model than the Porsche-driving, womanizing judge, played by Martin Shaw, who was always defending the underdogs from the corrupt powers of the establishment. This wonderfully produced, very British show, wasn't around for long, possibly because the suspension of disbelief was challenged by the odd circumstance that in every case that the judge presided over, the establishment villains were represented by his ex-wife, now married to the corrupt Minister of Justice, while the defense attorney for the put-upon victims always turned out to be his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jo Mills, played by the lovely Jenny Seagrove. She was often assisted by the Judge's law student daughter, which provided yet more conflicts of affection.

Many other professions have shown up as series protagonists. We've seen teachers, soldiers, undertakers, bartenders, priests, mafiosi and for six years, Patricia Arquette has appeared as a cuddly mom with supernatural powers in Medium, helping the DA to find serial killers. If the protagonists are interesting and/or appealing, and the writing is good, plausibility is no prerequisite for success.

I realize that salesmen, engineers, teachers and factory workers are also all underrepresented as key players, but what about architects? Not counting those home improvement shows like Extreme Makeover-Home Edition, how many series protagonists have been architects? One! Yes, there was one. Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey in the Death Wish movies and TV series. He stalked and killed dangerous street criminals before Rudy Giuliani even thought of becoming mayor of New York City. Despite the usual correctness of my political leanings, I was always fond of Charles Bronson in those movies, perhaps because of his no-nonsense manner, or maybe it was just the exciting novelty of seeing an architect as protagonist. But that was then and this is now. It's time for Death Wish XX. Street crime no longer is the dominating preoccupation it was in the 70's. The ten year-old fear factor of terrorism is wearing a little thin. Let's see a new crusading architect taking on the real villains of the day, bankrupting the banksters, and entrapping those corrupt mid-western governors. The Justice Department has given up on prosecuting our war criminals and the bought Supreme Court justices, so how about leaving it to a renegade architect on TV. If a medium is the last line of defense against serial killers, why can't an architect combat the oligarchs and their lackeys? So far, the urgent task of going after white collar criminals has been left mostly to Neal Caffery, a semi-reformed con-man, working with the FBI, on White Collar. There's a bit of a con-man in every successful architect, so why not have one join the battle. Just make him charismatic, with a beautiful girlfriend, or vice-versa, and keep the writing taut.