Taboos

July 14, 2010

Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year.  Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.”  It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.

*

Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights.  Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit.  Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.

Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos.  That’s not true.  Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity.  And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed.  Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”

As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress.  Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent.  But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.

In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.”  Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her.  (That was in 1972.)  Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.”  I think that’s the key.  Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse.  In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed.  That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.

In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject.  I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion.  That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today.  I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood.  Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”

Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one.  Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with.  I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads.  But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration.  It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying.  But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day.  And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.

It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle.  The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds.  I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.

The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”  In that show, which was made in 1965, Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide.  What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful.  The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip.  Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias.  Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority.  Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms.  Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism.  (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.)  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes.  I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?

There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment.  The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism.  Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both.  “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs.  That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica).  Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.”   I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode.  Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.

I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them.  I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion.  I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime.  The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.

The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because   it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject.  The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people.  Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not.  With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.

You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook.  But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry.  I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.

*

Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration.  For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary.  But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.”  Not good enough.  If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do.  The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.

*

And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor.  In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan.  The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber.  I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old.  Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.

The New Classics

December 30, 2009

Even though the decade doesn’t really end for another year (don’t get me started on the subject of the Year Zero), everyone is playing favorites this month, and I can’t resist joining in.  Typically, I’ve come across plenty of discussion about the best movies of the “aughts,” but not a whole lot about the highlights on the small screen during the same years.

I haven’t written much about “new” TV in this space, mainly because the launch of this blog two years ago coincided with a notable dip in the quality of both network and cable offerings.  But I’ve always insisted on defining “classic” as good rather than just old.  Here, then, are some remarks about the shows that I think stand as the finest of the past ten years.  (Yes, they’re in order of preference.)

1. Veronica Mars (UPN/CW, 2004-2007).  A howl of class resentment masquerading as teen angst, this po-mo Nancy Drew update mined revenge-fantasy gold with its sly premise: Veronica, a middle-class townie among decadent rich kids in a seaside SoCal town, uses the private eye skills she learned from her ex-police chief father (the wonderful Enrico Colantoni) to claw her way up the socioeconomic ladder.  Who wouldn’t want to relive their high school years armed with a Nexis password and a skeleton key to the principal’s office?  Newly-minted star Kristen Bell nailed the title role, cultivating a smart, sullen reserve that explained how Veronica could be beautiful (and capable of belting out a rockin’ karaoke cover of “One Way or Another”) and still a perpetual outsider.  Rob Thomas’s neon-lit neo-noir never took the easy way out, always treading instead into darker places than you thought a UPN show could go: Veronica spent the first season tracking down the rapist who took her virginity.  At the heart of the show was a touching filial bond – daughter and father against the world – but even there trust was not sacrosanct.  When Veronica swiped a clue from his private office safe, Dad said nothing . . . but changed the combo.

2. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008).  If its teenaged target demographic could overlook the Marxist underpinnings of Veronica Mars, there was no ignoring the class concerns of David Simon’s masterpiece, an epic survey of Baltimore’s haves and have-nots, from wretched crack addicts all the way up to scumbag politicians.  Jaw-droppingly ambitious and intelligent, The Wire earned a rep for complex plotting (“it’s more like a novel than TV,” was the backhanded critical refrain).  But the characters were the reason to watch; they were perhaps the richest and most unpredictable in the history of television, and often the writers seemed to make choices simply to find out what one of their creations would do in a particular circumstance (Prez … as a teacher?).  The inattentive recoiled from The Wire’s final season when the putative protagonist, homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), finally stepped outside the hypocritical professional code that had triggered his self-destructive rampages in the past.  Never mind that the groundwork for this act had been laid carefully for years: there are things that TV heroes just don’t do, and The Wire violated that covenant.  In granting Jimmy some measure of peace at the finale, the series reaffirmed the most essential and sagacious of its basic tenets: that our systems may be unsalvageable but that the people within them always merit respect.  Season Five also served up the best of the show’s trademark civic-arena subplots.  Simon staged a heart-rending tribute to the beat reporting from whence he came with his canonization of an old-school, anti-corporate newsroom editor (an astonishing Clark Johnson, also a key director on the show).  Dare I point out that East Side/West Side, forty years earlier, also closed by invoking the death of independent journalism as a self-referential metaphor?

3. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007).  If people were generally redeemable in Simon’s vision, the other David – David Chase – saw humanity as corrupt to the core; HBO in the aughts boiled down a Manichean debate between the conditional optimism of The Wire and the misanthropy of The Sopranos.  Indeed, The Sopranos’ central conceit that the mafia are just like us extended, over time, into a premise that every person is trapped in a prison of his or her own making – that we all repeat the same patterns of destructive behavior over and over again in an unbreakable cycle.  Consider Carmela’s endless but always deluded personal re-inventions, Janice’s interchangeable scumbag boyfriends, and of course the gradual decimation of everyone in Tony’s inner circle: viewers who played the game of guessing who would get whacked next missed the forest of existential despair for the trees.  Delighting in the visual contrast between mob violence and the bland New Jersey suburbs, Chase foregrounded his mockery of tracksuits and Starbucks until The Sopranos verged on full-out farce; by the end it had more in common with Seinfeld, the original Show About Nothing, than with The Godfather.

4. The Office (NBC, 2005- ).  Because the original British series was note-perfect, this adaptation seemed doomed, until (during the second season) showrunner Greg Daniels found ways to rebuild its structure to fit the American TV custom of more episodes and open-ended network runs.  One strategy was to shift the focus somewhat from megalomaniac manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) to a uniformly hilarious supporting cast of office oddballs, most of them played by non- or semi-professional actors.  Another was the use of melodrama – long-running, off-and-on story arcs like Dwight and Angela’s bizarre romance, or Michael’s feud with Toby – as the structural foundation for the gags.  Over time, these complicated subplots began to mimic real life, so that The Office’s jokes became interchangeable with the you-had-to-be-there insider humor of our own workplaces.  Best of all, Daniels and company – and it is a company, of performers and writers who, judging from the leftover scenes on the DVDs, improvise far more than is customary in the sitcom form – enjoy challenging their audience’s complacency.  Jim, the sardonic slacker who provides our easiest point of identification, begins to come off as smug and entitled when he gets the girl or works for a normal boss.  Meanwhile, Michael’s dim-witted worldview seems a bit less infuriating after he meets an adorable soulmate (Amy Ryan, doing a comic version of her character from The Wire).  If there’s a message here, it may be that work makes us all kind of insufferable.

5. Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006).  So corrosive in its sensibilities that it was destined to become a cult item, Mitchell Hurwitz’s dazzling satire attacked the American dream with a buzzsaw.  (Literally – much of the action took place in a house that was sliding into oblivion.)  The Bluths were a family of crooked Orange County land developers who were not just decadent and kooky, but utterly narcissistic and vile.  Incest – between the semi-retarded Buster and his perpetually soused mother; between the two tweener cousins; between the “normal” brother Michael and his maybe-sister (played by Jason Bateman and his actual sister, Justine) – was a frequent narrative possibility, and also the key metaphor in the show’s attitude toward the sanctity of family.  Arrested Development skirted so close to ugliness that I was poised to tune out until the most extreme characters, like the semi-retarded Buster (Tony Hale) and the sexually confused Tobias (David Cross), gradually worked their way around to being funny instead of just creepy.  What removed this show from Married With Children territory was its capacity for intricate verbal and physical farce.  As the seasons mounted (only up to three, alas), flocks of throwaway gags – like the one where teenaged Maeby stumbled into a successful career as a Miramax development exec – recurred and extended to the point that Arrested loyalists were rewarded with a laugh on every line or background action.  By the time Buster, the luckless Oedipal casualty with a dominant mother named Lucille, was maimed by an animal that escaped from his magician brother’s act – you got it, a loose seal – it seemed as if the English language itself might have evolved just to suit the show’s needs.

6. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006).  Aaron Sorkin’s presidential drama was so much a product of the Clinton era that I’ll bet many viewers have forgotten it was, save for the first few months, a show of the aughts rather than the nineties.  With its fantasy of a Wilsonian academic as president and a court of White House insiders who were philosophers as much as pragmatists, The West Wing was a tonic that helped many of us endure the Bush debacle – even though Sorkin was more likely to turn a New Yorker article into a C-storyline than to tackle any fiery lefty talking points head-on.  Sorkin’s exit just past the midpoint cost the show its brilliant Gilbert-and-Sullivan walk-and-talks, but the maligned “John Wells years” made some acceptable substitutions.  Wells’s core of new writers found flaws in the characters Sorkin had deified, and took a chance on a Robert Drew-derived pseudo-documentary civics lesson during its final Jimmy Smits vs. Alan Alda election storyline.  This was the last, and nearly the best, in the now extinct tradition of the eighties-vintage, character-driven large-ensemble drama.

7. The O.C. (FOX, 2003-2007).  The initial premise was thin, but irresistable: a prince-and-the-pauper variant by which a semi-orphaned delinquent (Ben McKenzie) befriends the son (Adam Brody) of the rich Orange County couple who adopt him.  The two teens engage in a form of mutual gate-crashing: the poor kid, Ryan, gains access to a world of privilege and opportunity, while geeky Seth trades on Ryan’s bad-boy cool factor to become popular.  Add some autobiographical sincerity from creator Josh Schwartz; a raft of snarky, self-referential improvisations by breakout stars Brody and Rachel Bilson; and just the right amount of a grounded truth in Peter Gallagher’s lovely performance as Seth’s mensch of a dad – and you have the feel-good show of the decade, a perfect dream of the way your teen years should have been but weren’t.

8. The Shield (FX, 2002-2008).  Was Vic Mackey, the epically crooked cop at the heart of The Shield, a subhuman monster or a vigilante saint?  I had no doubts about my own opinion of him, and at first I thought creator Shawn Ryan was taking the easy way out by playing the Archie Bunker card – that is, making Mackey (a ferocious Michael Chiklis) charismatic enough to serve as a rallying point for conservative viewers and leaving the rest of us to root for the massing horde of vengeful gangsters, politicians, and internal affairs cops to take him down.  But Vic Mackey turned out to contain multitudes: the ever more torturous and rickety amalgam of rationalizations that enabled Mackey to see himself as a defender of family and innocence rather than a murderer and a thief made him a compellingly ambivalent and complex anti-hero.  As Vic’s poison cascaded downward, everyone in his path (wife, kids, partners, bosses) struck similar bargains with themselves in order to keep the Mackey Problem at arm’s length; some of them, namely the brilliant but troubled serial-killer specialist Dutch (Jay Karnes) and his morally irreproachable partner Claudette (CCH Pounder), spun off into equally fascinating mini-stories of their own.  The Shield sustained an adrenaline-fueled pace that few shows could match, and constructed a vast, grungy world of L.A. lowlifes (on both sides of the law) that made it the best James Ellroy adaptation that’s not actually a James Ellroy adaptation.

9. Boston Public (FOX, 2000-2004).  Running on fumes after the intoxicating nineties (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal), the written-out David E. Kelley delivered one more of his quirky, sensitive, beautifully observed character dramas for the new millenium.  As unconcerned with teen life as a show set in a high school can be, Boston Public (like Mr. Novak forty years earlier) scrutinized the diverse mix of personalities who made up the mostly dedicated teaching staff of an inner-city campus.  Kelley’s respect for this impossible profession was consistently moving, as were many of the individual performances (especially that of Nicky Katt, as a teacher whose passionate involvement with his students’ problems was complicated by perpetually poor decision-making skills).  As often happened in Kelley’s best work, a prickly but soulful loner came to occupy the show’s emotional center; in this case, it was vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald), a much-loathed martinet with an unnoticed compassion for his students and an unrequited crush on a young teacher (Jessalyn Gilsig).  Guber’s unlikely friendship with the world-weary principal, Steven Harper (Chi McBride), set the stage for the decade’s most poetic two-handed acting to come from a pair of relatively unknown character players.

10. C.S.I. (CBS, 2000- ).  A victim of its own success, C.S.I. dropped off the critical radar after it tainted its brand with a pair of wretched spin-offs.  But the original version maintained its status as the most satisfying mainstream genre show on the air for most of the decade, thanks less to the clever forensic mysteries and the tiresome “bullet-cam” stylistic tics than to the well-rounded cast.  The whole ensemble understood that underplaying was the only way to build characters amid the torrent of technobabble, and star William Petersen maintained a poker face that kept science guru Gil Grissom an enigma all the way up to his 2009 exit.  The handful of episodes written by Jerry Stahl (which introduced the world to “furries” and “adult babies”) revel in their gleeful perversity and sexual frankness, and collectively they represent a kind of morbid humor that remains rare on television.  You can only get away with that when you’re number one.

*

Although I have a pet peeve about top ten lists that morph into “top seventeen” lists, I will comment on a few shows that merit some sort of honorable mention.  I wish I had found room for Jenji Kohan’s Weeds (Showtime, 2005- ).  Its writing is uneven and sometimes lazy, but also hilariously, unapologetically profane (“cockamole on her faceadilla” gave me my loudest laugh of the decade) and perfectly attuned to the weird personas of Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Nealon.  Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-2010) has insight, fine performers (especially Julian McMahon and Boston Public castoff Jessalyn Gilsig) and, crucially, some of the most vibrant and empowered women characters on television.  But the consistent streak of cruelty in Ryan Murphy’s world finally turned me away.  Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005) and Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) could have made the list, had either of those very different shows carried the depth and urgency of their first two seasons forward into their last three.  30 Rock (NBC, 2006- ) has overcome most of my initial resistance, and hit some kind of zany peak in its third year.  Fastlane (FOX, 2002-2003) gets the “guilty pleasure” vote: this forgotten one-season cop show catalogued the mindless pleasures of empty banter, expensive man-toys, sexy ladies, and explosions with an infectious glee and a surplus of style.

And while I love Mad Men (AMC, 2007- ), something (maybe just the fact that I haven’t seen the most recent season) kept pushing it out of my top ten.  Like its hero, Don Draper, the show has a way of holding back just when it should burst forward.  Will Mad Men’s undeniable excellence last long enough to earn it a spot in the next decade’s list?  Somehow, I doubt it – but then, I’m not sure if I’m going to last that long, either.

Sex and Violence

July 9, 2009

I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones.  Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history.  But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again.  So perhaps that’s a place to start.

Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America.  (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.)  For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon.  Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.

But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter.  The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights.  That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause.  Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.

As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting.  I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological.  This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.

In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device.  Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24.   It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time.  Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies.  But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B.  24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc.  There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford.  Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock.  24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.

It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about  the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist.  But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic.  Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left).  Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance.  But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology.  Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.

What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero.  But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.

Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture.  Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24.  Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public.  People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too.  Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A.  Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today.  What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.

*

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year.  Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory.  What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?

Not much, it turns out.  Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under).  But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time.  Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher.  But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.

There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies.  (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.)  Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression.  Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue,  as she is in bed with two men.  Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.

But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle.  The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism.  I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church.  But Parker understands that we want to see her break through.  She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments.  A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect.  Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.

The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable.  For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial.  At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.

Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping.  Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence.  One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.

Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too.  There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped.  Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood.  Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance.  But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?

I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma.  “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently.  Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.”  (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.)  Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either.  Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto?  One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.

My name is Stephen, and I am a Trekkie.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve used, but I know I can slip at any time.

It started when I was nine years old.  My father, in most other ways a sage and upstanding man, was the one who hooked me.  He just wanted something decent to watch when he came home from work.  At the time Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was my afternoon rerun of choice, and he knew Star Trek was on the other channel.

It didn’t take immediately.  I pronounced the spaceships and the wild aliens “boring,” and I missed Jim Nabors.  But after a while, I started to get it.  I liked Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, and the idea that Mr. Spock’s behavior was governed by logic rather than emotion (a point of view foreign to most of my fellow fourth graders).  I couldn’t have articulated this then, but I also dug the retro-futurist design in the sets, the costumes, and the special effects.  (Now, I find these to be the most enduring aspects of the 1966 Star Trek’s appeal – which is why the new Blu-Ray versions which replace the original effects with CGI gild the lily in the most pointless way.) 

It got ugly pretty fast.  I was always an obsessive taxonomist of whatever interest I had at the moment – earlier, it had been geography, and before that zoology – and so I got my hands on all the books about Star Trek and read them over and over again.  There was Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Companion.  Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek.  David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. My mother, so sure she’d had a scientific prodigy on her hands, tore her hair and begged for the animals and the maps to come back.  But they were gone for good. 

My father suffered, too.  I’d become a Trek fan during a rare window, a lull between the movies, when the original show wasn’t ubiquitous in reruns, at least where I lived.  I must’ve dragged my dad to every video store in the greater Raleigh area looking for tapes of the fifty-two episodes that had been released on VHS.  When the lion’s share of Star Trek’s third season finally emerged on tape, my father bought the whole run of them on the same night I discovered them in the Waldenbooks at the Crabtree Valley Mall.  I was awed, because a parent had never spent so much money on me at one time before.  Now I realize that my father understood he was saving himself a lot of grief in the long run.

I tried to spread the gospel in school, but they were all heathens there.  I’d take my Star Trek books into class and the other kids, discoving that I had them memorized, would quiz me on the trivia.  They thought they had me once, but it was actually a misspelling in Asherman’s book.  During the fifth grade, our lessons each week were organized around a theme of the teacher’s choosing: geology, say, or Native American culture.  In the spring Mrs. Jones (not a pseudonym) called me outside and whispered a secret conspiracy: what say I ghost-write her lesson plan and we make Star Trek the theme of the week?  I happily complied.  Finally, an official seal of approval!  My classmates seethed: this Star Trek nonsense they’d been tuning out for so long had finally forced its way into their lives.  I’d been a citizen of the nerd ghetto since kindergarten, but Star Trek sent my popularity down to some subterranean level quite possibly never plumbed by an elementary schooler before.  That time when the other kids (abetted by a parent volunteer) duct-taped my mouth shut – I’m pretty sure that had something to do with Star Trek.

My fervor crested around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987.  I still remember which living room chair I was sitting in as I devoured the pilot (mediocre, but of course I didn’t mind).  The Next Generation was a constant during my teen years, even as my media tastes expanded (other TV shows; movies; theater) and as I developed something resembling a social life.  When it went off the air – I remember that night, too – it was sad, but I figured I could get by without it now.  There were other things to think about, like girls.

Something else happened during the seven-year run of The Next Generation, something more profound than my feeble progress toward getting a life, and it’s a phenomenon that I don’t think has been remarked upon enough: Star Trek became corporatized.  Paramount had been trying to make money off of Star Trek for twenty years, but in fact it had overseen a long period of benign ineptitude (premature cancellation of the original series; the collapse of a sequel show in the seventies; the failure of the first film) in which Trekkies were more or less left to their own devices.  Finally, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio had a vehicle that could generate sustained profit and, more importantly, could transition Trek from a cult to a mainstream fanbase.

I noticed the changes that came with that transition with dismay.  I was, after all, the last of the “classic Trek” fans.  Suddenly Trekkies were deluged with collectible plates and pewter starships.  An extensive line of action figures emerged – oh, if only they’d been a few years earlier, when I was still young enough to play with them!  When I went to my first Star Trek convention, in 1987, there was a dealer’s room where the items for sale were mostly handmade (wood-carved tricorders!) or mimeographed (episode guides and, yes, even some “K/S” fan fiction).  The only celebrity guest was Mark Lenard, who had played the minor character of Spock’s father, and the rest of the busy program consisted of fans’ panel discussions and screenings of original Trek episodes and blooper reels on ordinary TV sets.  During the run of The Next Generation, the conventions were hijacked by an event planning corporation called Creation.  Creation could book the big name stars into third-tier cities like Raleigh, and project exclusive preview clips onto giant screens.  The dealers sold only Paramount-authorized merchandise; fans never had much chance to talk to each other; and while Marina Sirtis was fun, it was obvious even to a thirteen year-old that she (unlike Mark Lenard) was there because promoting the show was part of her job.

I’m pretty sure that I was the only person under eighteen at that 1987 show.  When I went to my last convention, five or six years later, I was shocked to see the audience full of children younger than me, with parents in tow.  Star Trek was now being marketed, successfully, not toward adults but to a “family” demographic.

Courting an audience of twelve year-olds, Star Trek seemed increasingly to be written and executed at a twelve year-old level.  The writing and acting on The Next Generation remained somewhat pure, but the subsequent series had compromise in their DNA.  Early on during the run of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry, the truculent anti-authoritarian who had created Star Trek, was kicked upstairs.  Rick Berman, the Paramount executive who took charge of the Trek franchise, was a corporate loyalist – a suit.  Everything new that emerged during the Berman era was calculatedly bland.  Deep Space Nine, the third series, introduced the character of Dr. Bashir as a temperamental and potentially dangerous rogue, for example, but he became a lovable fop after the test screenings.  Voyager and Enterprise, the fourth and fifth Trek series, made me embarrassed to admit I had ever been a Trekkie, with their cookie-cutter scripts and interchangeable supporting casts of pretty but hopeless nobodies.  (Quick, Neelix or Phlox, which was the comic relief alien from which series?  It doesn’t matter: both were insufferable.)

What really bothered me was that the fans seemed to go right along with program while Star Trek was watered down and merchandised to death.  I didn’t get it.  Star Trek had been a phenomenon of the counterculture.  The original Trekkies were hippies and peaceniks who had seen Trek as part of a larger cultural movement that tried to map out a hopeful future in a dark time.  They were intellectuals and artists, not maladjusted shut-ins.  At least, that’s the way it was told in the histories of fandom I’d read.  But if that was true, why didn’t the old guard of Trek fans rise up and reject the condescending, homogenized Star Trek of Deep Space Nine on, of the tie-in novels, of most of the feature films? 

I had this epiphany sometime in high school and resolved to write a passionate, well-reasoned missive to the official Star Trek fanzine, the Communicator, outlining the points above and leading the fans in wresting Star Trek back from the corporate machine.  I would be the Trotsky of Star Trek.  But then it dawned on me that most – in fact, just about all – of the letters published in the Trek fanzine were pretty positive about the way Star Trek was going.  It was almost as if the Communicator was itself hooked in with Paramount somehow.  I began to suspect that the Communicator might have the temerity to not publish my manifesto, even if I did sit down and write it.  I wondered if everyone who had mocked Star Trek, from Bill Shatner on Saturday Night Live on down to my middle school classmates, might not have been right.  Were we sheep, we Trekkies?  By the time I went off to college, I had mostly left Star Trek behind.

I tried to be loyal over the years.  I sampled Voyager and Enterprise when they began, but found them too banal to stick with.  With its complex characters, its robust acting and direction, and its sometimes profound engagement with real ideas, The Next Generation had achieved a quality comparable to the other great (and more critically acclaimed) ensemble dramas with which it overlapped, from St. Elsewhere to Picket Fences.  But Voyager and Enterprise were just schlocky action serials. 

I’ll admit to a certain schadenfreude when UPN cancelled the last of the Star Trek shows well before the end of the seven-year covenant to which every mediocre Trek sequel felt entitled.  Enterprise had done more than simply bore me.  It had enraged me with the cliff-hanger ending to its second season, a callous fictionalization of the September 11 tragedy that expanded the following year into a hysterical, opportunistic parable for the United States’s “war on terror” (itself a fiction, but I digress). 

One of the main architects of this “Xindi” storyline was a writer named Manny Coto, and years later when the New Yorker made a big splash by outing the creative staff of 24 (including Coto) as a nest of right-wing torture-mongers, my reaction was along the lines of: Well, no doi.  That agenda was no secret if you knew where to look.  Star Trek died the most undignified death imaginable.  It began as one of television’s few sincere pleas for tolerance and peace (complete, infamously, with actual space hippies) and ended as a neo-conservative exercise in outer space war games.

*

But Star Trek, like Spock, always resurrects, and if the above reads like a backhanded way of tying this blog in with current events . . . well, it is.  We have a new Trek movie whose box office returns are replicating like tribbles, and that seems sure to guarantee a few more sequels starring its new cast in the familiar roles.  Supposedly the fans are on board, but then my friend Scott Foundas (also a lapsed Trekkie) believes that the film was made by a committee of Vulcans, or of studio execs looking to shore up their franchise.  That sounds familiar to me.  I wish the new Star Trek well, but I’m not sure I’m in any hurry to beam up again.

space_hippies3[1]

Benefactors

August 15, 2008

I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast.  But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way.  I had to take a peek.

Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration.  It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her.  So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.

The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The DefendersMad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements.  Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.”  Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women.  But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”

The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode.  Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.”  In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested.  The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her.  Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.

Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare

“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue.  In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial.  Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens).  “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience.  Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion.  The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives.  (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)

“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode.  In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved.  It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times

“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast.  During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place.  Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising.  Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown. 

But the worst of the storm was yet to come.  Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18.  This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode.  The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.”  Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment.  A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July.  All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”

Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS.  It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses.  Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley.  “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show.  Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant.  Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company.  Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.

The historical record supports Dann’s assessment.  Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash.  Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show.  The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.”  The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould.  Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”

Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders.  The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner.  Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics.  “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use. 

*

One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties.  Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast).  TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.”  Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.

Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”

In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped.  Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally.  In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.

“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me.  “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.”  Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances.  Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived.  Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died.  Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.

Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties.  Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character.  With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”

*

If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch.  As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980.  It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years.  And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance.  Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs.  Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video?  Probably.  But here’s hoping.

Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend.  Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive.  These are indeed worth exploring further.

The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made.  He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made.  I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television.  In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead.  Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result. 

However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism.  Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea.  The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964.  Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air.  “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network.  Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.

Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script.  In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties.  On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages.  Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors. 

(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.”  Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962.  What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC.  I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)

The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.”  It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962.  The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.

Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama.  I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts.  But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist. 

Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too.  The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962.  It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane.  But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist.  Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant. 

Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers