- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

Just because Howard Rosenberg has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism doesn’t mean you should hold it against him. The longtime TV critic for the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Rosenberg exhibits all of the markings of a certified Pulitzer winner: cynicism and populism mixed with a healthy dose of liberalism.

Not So Prime Time: Chasing the Trivial on American Television (Ivan R. Dee, $26, 257 pages) is a collection of Mr. Rosenberg’s newspaper columns, cut into sections dealing with TV news, schlock television, and politics.

Of those three, it is his obsession with TV news that gets Mr. Rosenberg most exercised. He laments the state of local newscasts, the dilution of network news by its “infotainment” stepchildren (such as the “Today” show and “Prime Time Live”), and the steady merging of tabloids and traditional journalism.

Taking a decidedly fatalistic view, he laments, “If Lincoln had issued his document that freed slaves in rebelling states in the era of all-news channels instead of in 1863, they would have granted him half the screen, the rest to Laci Peterson’s memorial.”

And, “If Saddam Hussein and Michael Jackson had been taken into custody on the same day in 2003, the twenty-four hour news channels, local news, and perhaps the major networks too would have assigned the stories equal weight by splitting the screen and showing them simultaneously.”

Mr. Rosenberg should be forgiven if he sounds overly pessimistic. After all, he has to watch this stuff for a living.

On politics, he does many of the things one would expect of a West Coast liberal. He takes shots at Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy and Fox News Channel. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political dominance clearly bothers him and, because he’s against the death penalty, he argues that executions should be televised.

But the charm of “Not So Prime Time” is that Mr. Rosenberg often strays from the liberal script and comes in at off-angles. He resents the rude treatment the media gave to Paula Jones and argues that private infidelities can yield important insight into the character of public officials.

Further, he is initially heartened by George W. Bush’s lack of eloquence on television, saying, “A president who is awkward and relatively transparent on camera is preferable to one willing to use his pizzazz and TV mastery to potentially deceive the public.”

At the end of the day, Howard Rosenberg loves television more than he loves political ideology. He believes in television’s importance and capacity to do good — so much so that he thinks of the president as “America’s Anchorman.”

It’s this love that causes him to hate most of what’s on television. And it’s what gives “Not So Prime Time” its pleasant and tangy bite.

• • •

The one glaring area of omission in Mr. Rosenberg’s book is entertainment television, which he touches on only fleetingly. If he had dealt more extensively with TV fiction, he almost certainly would have come to the best show in the history of television: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

During its seven-year run, “Buffy” earned critical praise from the far corners of the land: TV critics, academics, theologians. The show spawned college courses and books such as James South’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale.”

The latest contribution to the raft of Buffy literature is Jana Riess’ What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide (Jossey-Bass, $14.95, 183 pages). The author sets about decoding and interpreting the religious symbolism and moral messages of the show. It is not a book for the uninitiated.

Littered with quotes from the Bible, Oscar Wilde, Chinese proverbs, the Koran, Confucius, Shakespeare, the Dhammapada, Martin Luther, and other sources, “WWBD” at times reads like a doctoral thesis submitted to an especially hip professor.

While Jana Riess gets many small things about “Buffy” right, she gets the central one wrong: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was grounded in religion, not spirituality.

The author seems simpatico with the show’s star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is quoted saying, “I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting … I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.”

In her effort to present “Buffy” as a religious hodgepodge, the author even goes so far as to claim that “it’s not Christianity but Buddhism that drives the show’s central themes.” Which couldn’t be more untrue.

From the crosses and holy water to the religious iconography and presentation of Satan, “Buffy” was always based in a Christian, and nearly Catholic, universe. And while the show’s creators always kept God offscreen, He was ever present.

The author’s conflation of the religious and spiritual will certainly be popular. As she says approvingly, “One of the catchphrases of Generation X has been, ‘I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual.’” But, as George Weigel has noted, this gauzy bit of nothingness leads eventually to nihilism.

It does, however, have the benefit of being unassailably non-judgmental. In today’s world there can be no higher praise.

One point of interest that “WWBD” touches upon is that Joss Whedon, the man behind the spectacularly religious “Buffy,” is at best a studied agnostic. In the past he has said some nasty things about organized religion.

After the attacks of September 11 he told the Web site Salon.com, “I have nothing against religion as a concept, or as people practice it. Religious institutions on the other hand, I believe cause people to fly planes into buildings. It’s very dangerous.” Well, then.

Which brings up an interesting question: How did a man so distant from religion create such a deeply religious show? The suspicion is that Mr. Whedon was playing devil’s advocate with himself and taking positions counter to his own beliefs in order to keep his writing sharp and free of sentiment.

By arguing the side he didn’t agree with, Mr. Whedon was able to be ruthless about keeping his dramatic structures intact and also go for laughs — two areas where self-important religious programs like “Touched by an Angel” often failed.

• • •

“Buffy” also figures in Danny Fingeroth’s Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Continuum, $19.95, 181 pages). Mr. Fingeroth, who cut his teeth in the comic-book world editing “Spider-Man,” sees Buffy as the first modern female superhero, and believes that she has ushered in a new era in popular fiction where powerful women can be seen as heroes, not villains.

Mr. Fingeroth explains that while Wonder Woman was the first female superhero, she was always stilted and bound by contemporary expectations of femininity. But “Superman on the Couch” is less valuable for its gender-studies hypothesizing than for its history.

For instance, the author reports that the creator of Wonder Woman was William Moulton Marston. A graduate of Harvard, Marston is more famously known as the inventor of the lie detector, and, less famously, as a de facto polygamist.

Mr. Fingeroth looks at common tropes of the superhero genre — secret identities, orphanhood, vigilantism, and moral codes — and comes up with much pop-psychology bunk, but also with some interesting information and perspective on how the world of superheroes and comic books has taken over large swaths of popular culture, mostly for the good.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of the Weekly Standard.

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