Hollywood thinks all we want in a recession is bland, comforting garbage. Mark Harris says: Wrong!

By Mark Harris
Updated April 06, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dave Bjerke/NBC

2009 movies/TV: Stop the inanity!

Many of us are gritting our teeth and counting our dimes through this rough recession, but the studios and networks have discovered a silver lining — they don’t have to try anymore. In entertainment, we have met the first casualty of the economic collapse: ambition.

And apparently, we’re to blame. You. Me. Us. The message is reinforced each Monday. Every time a silly movie like Knowing or Paul Blart: Mall Cop takes the No. 1 spot because it happened to outgross that weekend’s other silly movies, a gang of self-defined experts ”analyze” the results, and their take usually goes like this: In these bleak times, audiences just want to escape. As the networks order pilots for next season, executives are murmuring about how viewers are looking for ”comfort food” as they order up yet another cop, doctor, or lawyer show. And so a long-standing Hollywood agenda — a desire to shun challenging material in favor of easily replicable formula product — is disguised, offensively, as a capitulation to popular demand.

Why do the studios and networks want this to be true so badly? Because it would make their lives much simpler. A film whose best features are its ad, its poster, and its billboard is simpler to produce and sell than one that relies on its acting, writing, and direction to grab your attention. But in insisting that they’re simply responding to the dictates of the public, I think Hollywood has misunderstood us. Of course we want to escape from bad times — but not into bad entertainment! If anything, when things are rocky, pop culture has more of a responsibility to be stimulating, exciting, engaging, and even challenging, not just anesthetizing.

Some of the trends are downright scary. Next fall, NBC is handing over its entire 10 p.m. time slot, Monday to Friday, to Jay Leno, heralding it as a new business model (translation: We can produce his show so cheaply that it won’t matter if nobody tunes in). That’s five scripted dramas that won’t get a chance next season. Doesn’t that sort of reduce Jay’s guest pool? Who’s he going to interview — NBC’s 97 other talk-show hosts, or all the actors who star in shows that people are watching instead of his? Things aren’t looking much brighter on the big screen: Studios have recently announced the development of new movies based on Monopoly (yes, the board game), Clue (yes, the board game), and Candy Land (yes).

Candy Land. Wow. How will they possibly capture all the game’s subtle intricacies in just one film?

Even some very smart people suddenly seem to be dumbing down. Tom Hanks’ production company recently acquired the movie rights to Major Matt Mason. Come again? Major Matt Mason was a kind of lame rubbery astronaut doll from the mid-1960s that, Wikipedia reminds us, is best remembered for breaking easily. Tom, you’ve got two Oscars and a hundred trillion dollars, and you’ve already played a toy twice. You’re better than this.

Hollywood types with a sense of history that stretches back farther than Titanic love to use the Great Depression as evidence that a plunging Dow means people just want to have a happy time at the movies. But the Depression coincided with the dawn of the sound era, so movie-goers went to everything. Musicals, gangster films, Westerns, romantic comedies, monster movies, historical spectacles, biopics, sexy pre-Production Code dramas, and even what passed at the time for gritty, rough-edged social realism. People checked their troubles at the door, not their brains. If you don’t want to look back that far, how about the 1990s, when one of TV’s most popular shows was Roseanne, which unflinchingly depicted a family that was struggling from paycheck to paycheck?

If Roseanne were pitched to networks today, I suspect they’d say it was too much of a downer. But as this grim era unfolds, I’d like to place my bet on executives who take smart, reasonably priced risks on material they believe in. When the money is all counted, you can either be the guy who released Slumdog Millionaire or the guy who didn’t, the guy who greenlit the spiky, delightfully strange hit Coraline or the guy who passed. There will always be an audience for mindless crap, but not only for mindless crap. Executives who insist that all we want is comfort food because that’s all they know how to cook are missing our appetite for variety, for surprise, for something we’ve never seen. And in underestimating our intelligence, they overestimate their own.