At Last, TV for People Just Like Me
by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University
I hate your favorite television show. Honestly. I loathe it. You love it, I know. But it’s a stinking pile of shit. I’m sorry to be coarse, but I can’t watch it for two minutes without feeling sick to my stomach.
My favorite show is not like yours. Mine isn’t just good TV. It’s poetry. It’s timeless. It will last as long as Shakespeare, as long as human beings walk this planet. Of course, you can’t stand it.
Who could have imagined that television would give us so much to hate?
Consensus is a lovely idea, of course; but it’s just so twentieth-century. There’s still something to be said for respect and tolerance, but this is an age for preaching to the choir. If you aren’t like me, you don’t think like me.
It isn’t a tautology, or even bad faith; it’s demography — reinforced by the massless media of a new century. My tastes, as Amazon.com constantly reminds me, are remarkably similar to those of people like me.
The true savants of the age are the actuaries — those slide rule-wielding, cigar-chomping, hard-boiled avatars of Enlightenment. Think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity: the sort of guy who can take one glance at your census form then look you in the eye without blinking and tell you what brand of toothpaste you use, which programs you TiVo, how long you’ll live, and which malady will put you in the grave.
Demography is destiny.
It wasn’t so long ago that we spoke of television as the campfire around which our culture gathers to tell its communal stories. Now it’s the doctor’s office waiting room where we idly flip through back issues of Cat Fancy while awaiting our lab results; or the bedside table where we stashed our precious, dog-eared issues of Tiger Beat, the ones with David Soul on the cover.
It’s a cold-eyed glimpse of someone else’s passion, or the white-hot detonation of our own. But it’s no communal campfire — unless it’s the campfire of a Survivor tribal council where we gather in seething resentment to cement temporary, self-serving alliances.
There are times when the TV industry tries to convince us that nothing has changed, that we still live in a Ptolemaic television universe with the networks at the center — or that we have a collective investment in the beating of a butterfly’s wings in some remote corner of the galaxy where network news anchors are still being built.
Even at their best, these moments come off as crude and desperate – as when NBC recently sent Brian Williams, the shiny new anchorbot in Tom Brokaw’s chair, to report on the Asian tsunami. Presumably, an anchor’s grave conviction is the one skill that can’t be outsourced.
At their worst, these moments are so comically self-delusional that you’d hardly be surprised to see network executives being chased down Fifth Avenue by fellows with butterfly nets.
Perhaps you’ve heard that, after twelve (or so) seasons of pulse-pounding drama, NYPD Blue has come down to its FINAL TWO EPISODES! Ah, nothing lasts forever. The passage of time is indeed bittersweet. NYPD Blue is a landmark, one of the three or four greatest dramas in the history of television, and — hey, wait a second — NYPD Blue is still on the air?
So much has happened in my hectic life–The Osbournes, The Sopranos, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Scott Peterson trial, Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, a DVD box set of Baretta — that, well, um, I guess I just forgot about my old friend NYPD Blue.
Motivated by the potent blend of curiosity and shame that is the emotional cocktail of choice for discerning television viewers, I returned chastened to pay my final respects. What I found was more sordid than anything I’d ever seen on television, and I’ve seen the local news during sweeps months.
In that familiar squad room stood Dennis Franz surrounded by people who looked like models from a Land’s End catalogue, a scruffy Gulliver in a land of well-scrubbed Lilliputians. Who are these people and what have they done with the real actors?
I’m sure that someone has been watching NYPD Blue since Bobby Simone died about 140 episodes ago; but I felt like I had stumbled upon the last remaining Japanese soldier in a Philippines jungle circa 1958. Did someone forget to tell ABC that the war is over?
Don’t get me wrong. I was once a dedicated fan of NYPD Blue. I made it through several cycles of tragedy and redemption, a few dozen manly embraces, and a couple jittery glimpses of Franz’s furry ass. And I appreciate the slow simmer of long-term storytelling, the leisurely revelation of character, the measured epiphany that arrives as a reward for a viewer’s commitment. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no TV drama with the storytelling depth of NYPD Blue, nor a character as rich or complicated as Andy Sipowicz.
But I reached the point of diminishing returns several manly embraces ago and by the time of Jimmy Smits’s much-hyped reappearance as one of Andy’s hallucinations during the November sweeps, I had scuttled off long ago to one of the programming niches designed for people just like me.
ABC’s ad campaign for the series finale would like us to think that there is a television-viewing public with a collective investment in NYPD Blue. But it’s an ad campaign uncorked from a time capsule buried sometime around the final episode of M*A*S*H — from a television universe that still existed when NYPD Blue first appeared, but not the one that bears witness to its demise.
I don’t doubt the passion for NYPD Blue that beats in the heart of true believers. After all, these are the days when fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have marshaled forces to create a fully searchable database for each and every episode. If NASA could channel the energy of the committed pop culture fan, we would have a colony on Uranus by now.
What seems delusional to me is the belief that the NYPD Blue finale actually matters. This may be the culminating event in the lives of some NYPD Blue fans, but there are also people who get dressed up in military costumes on the weekend and re-enact the Battle of Bull Run. That doesn’t make it a good idea.
The true signpost for this moment in television history is not the final episode of NYPD Blue, as ABC would have us believe, but the second-season premiere of Deadwood, the new series by NYPD Blue creator David Milch, which returns to HBO in early March. At the nearly the same moment, HBO’s competitor, Showtime, is bringing back the second season of its drama, The L Word.
A couple of million people watch the scabrous Western, Deadwood, each week. Another, and presumably different, million watch The L Word, a contemporary drama set among a circle of lesbian friends in Los Angeles.
Each series is groundbreaking in its own way. Each charts its own course with virtually no concessions to a general audience. Each is viewed on a premium cable channel by the tiniest sliver of the national population. One is brilliant and stunningly original; the other is tedious and wildly overrated. If you’re like me, you’ll agree.
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