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Real Life: One of 1991's great entertainers

The Gulf War, Soviet coup, and Thomas hearings were the most compelling dramas of the year

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It felt like a TV show — except it appeared in 10-hour wind sprints that left your eyes cathode-fried, your rump sore, and your stomach begging for sustenance. It looked like a TV show — except the drama was more gripping and the language tougher. It sounded like a TV show — except the laugh track came from a Senate chamber and some dialogue required translation. In three bursts this year — during the gulf war, the Soviet coup attempt, and the Clarence Thomas hearings — TV did more than convey history: It made history. In a medium in which shows from Cops to Studs fall under the meaningless rubric ”reality television,” 1991 gave the concept a new spin: TV was the only reality, and — from January’s gulf war to December’s Kennedy rape trial — reality was sold as a can’t-miss TV show.

What did we learn? That the networks can package breaking news to make it look like War and Remembrance. Remember America Goes to the Gulf: The Miniseries, brought to you by the Big Three networks with a breakout performance by hot new star CNN? The armed conflict came complete with theme music, papier-mâché-gone-haywire sets (the best of them: ABC’s oversize desert sandbox), splashy newcomers (Scud stud and future Trivial Pursuit answer Arthur Kent), and play-by-play from every retired general and think-tank weenie in America. And TV itself was a star. When they weren’t glued to CNN, State Department couch potatoes were peering solemnly at Saturday Night Live to gauge America’s feelings about the war. Were they taking a poll? No. More like a political Nielsen rating.

As the year went on, the cameras got closer to the action. When plotters appeared to overthrow Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August, videotape captured a defiant Boris Yeltsin atop a tank; Yeltsin couldn’t have disseminated a more effective visual image if he had commissioned a statue. And when the coup fell apart, the scenario that revealed its disarray was — what else? — a televised news conference.

Sound hard to top? Don’t forget To Tell the Truth — October’s public strip search of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. The yardsticks Americans used to judge the hearings — how the participants looked, how they sounded, how they acted — would not have been possible without TV. Even the Senators acknowledged the inevitable when they halted their cosseting of Thomas to scold him just once. His transgression was something the distinguished gentlemen took far more seriously than sexual harassment: He had failed to watch Hill’s testimony on TV.

By capturing everything in pore-probing close-up — Hill’s coolness, Thomas’ heat, Orrin Hatch’s tent-show swooning over the inky fumes of The Exorcist, Ted Kennedy’s sorry ineffectuality — TV once again performed its 1991 specialty: It brought another war into American living rooms. And viewers have never had more reason to be grateful for a dusty truism — the camera doesn’t lie.