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The Beast, The Eunuch and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s

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The Beast, the Eunuch and the Glass-eyed Child: Television in the '80s

type:
Book
Current Status:
In Season
author:
76884
genre:
Pop Culture, Television

We gave it a B-

After 20 years as a TV critic, Ron Powers still writes like he’s shouting at the top of his lungs: If you don’t shut that damn thing off and march right upstairs and do your homework, you’ll wake up one day and find out they’ve & elected Morton Downey Jr. President! And what’s worse, you’ll probably love it, you post-typographic, semiliterate pack of barbarians! Whaddaya mean, I watch more TV than you do? It’s my job!

Like a lot of critics who earn a living writing about the tube, Powers makes a great show of being above the job. He wants you to know that if television was not ”the unifying and inevitable subject of our time,” a literary ace like himself who believes in ”the redemptive power of the written word” would find something more significant to write about. Yet duty calls. Since ”represented experience (as seen on the video screen) is rapidly replacing direct experience as the defining sensibility in American life,” the critic must carry on a brave and lonely battle against a veritable plague of ”anchor bitches,” Geraldo clones, weather geeks, dopey sitcoms, and MTV. ”The god-damned American Id made manifest,” which, he complains, ”terrifies me more than a little.”

Actually Powers’ pose is a venerable one. ”Fools rush into my head, and so I write,” Alexander Pope explained in 1735 of a career devoted to lampooning bad poets rather than composing a new Divine Comedy. The alternative as Pope saw it was the triumph of decadence and the extinction of wit.

But what exactly would Powers be doing if he gave up writing about TV? As the author himself raises the question in the introduction to this dyspeptic collection of monthly columns originally written for GQ magazine, it seems fair enough to want an answer. Alas, none is forthcoming and the truth seems to be that Powers has found his niche, even if he is half-ashamed of it. Nothing in this world seems to animate the man half so much as what he sees on TV — almost every bit of which evokes in him fear, loathing, and dreadful fits of Tom Wolfe-ish overwriting:

”Why can’t we just. . .shove the whole mucilaginous mass to one side? And heave ourselves off the couch that has been our pop-cult cocoon lo this anesthetized decade and a half? And somehow get on with our lives — with our national life?. . .

”Isn’t everyone about. . .bloody. . .well. . .bored sick. . .of celebrities?

”Bingo. This decade’s celebrity onslaught is like nothing so much as the inside of a giant amok Warhol popcorn popper: The celebrinuggets as popping pips, ceaselessly set aquiver by some new blastogenesis.”

Well, as a matter of fact, some of the more obtrusive TV ”personalities” do wear out their welcome rather quickly. Such as the aforementioned Downey, once described by Powers as ”the face of television in the twenty-first century.” Trouble is ,almost as soon as Downey became a household name, he vanished like Tinkerbell into an electronic limbo populated by failed game-show hosts, ex-roller derby stars, one-hit rock groups, and Jessica Hahn. Why Powers chose to reprint his absurd prediction in book form is anybody’s guess.

What’s more, for a guy who spends so much time in front of the tube, Powers sure misses a lot. With a few exceptions he pretty much limits his comments to the prime-time offerings of the four major networks. But even a middle-size city, such as Little Rock, Ark., has some 30-odd channels. Viewers in remote corners of the state can watch Margaret Thatcher jousting with Parliament live on C-Span. Not one but two CNN stations bring 24-hour news broadcasts — not to mention the Chicago Cubs, the Nashville Network, Monty Python, virtually every Jack Nicholson movie extant, enough nature documentaries to bore Jacques Cousteau, even several book-chat shows.

One thing we old-fashioned print types figure out pretty quick: Of the making of bad books there is no end, but not every stinker signals the death of literacy and the decline of civilization. The same holds true for television. Even tabloid shows like A Current Affair are complex and sophisticated compared with the lurid gibberish read by the London mobs in the age of Jane Austen. Civilization such as it is survived; likely it will survive MTV as well.

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