Thursday, November 25, 2004

It may be a time of thanksgiving, but my dissatisfaction runs deep. The New York Times — which, like a frightened squid, keeps squirting gushers of ink at Bush voters — now declares that television remains “far more likely to keep pumping from the deep well of murder, mayhem and sexual transgression than seek diversion along the straight and narrow path.” And it’s the Bush voters’ own hypocritical fault.

Of course, my first question is, that’s it? It’s really got to be one or the other? Stinky well or sterile path, it’s never quite enough to make me flick on the TV just for fun. Which is why I haven’t seen “C.S.I.” or “Desperate Housewives.” Or, for that matter, the old “Touched by an Angel,” the second of the two kinds of show that represent the lonely poles of contemporary cultural possibility. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel as though I’ve seen them — I know character names, plot lines, how the “Housewives” creator was all washed up, and, of course, how a towel-clad star-housewife jumped Ron Artest, setting off the infamous Pistons-Pacers-Fans conduct-malfunction. Or something.

But back to the Times’ front-page efforts. By adding exit poll numbers to Nielsen ratings, the newspaper fancies it has come up with Something Quite Profound. “Many Who Voted for ‘Values’ Still Like Their Television Sin,” the newspaper headlined, arguing that “the supposed cultural divide is more like a cultural mind meld.” Why? Because “Housewives” and “C.S.I.” are both blue- and red-state hits. This is supposed to mean something: namely, that “values voters” — that ill-defined and slim slice of polling data that, the debunked story goes,alonere-elected George W. Bush — are watching sex- and violence-drenched “entertainment,” and that this is a paradox. Why, the newspaperwonders, would all those “values voters” become no-values viewers?

It’s a faulty premise. Not only does it depend on a zero-sum vision of free will and personality, but it also implies that pulling the lever for “traditional” marriage or against abortion eliminates curiosity, boredom, bad taste and maybe even sin from the human condition.

Even more dubious is the evidence. “In the greater Atlanta market, reaching more than two million households, ‘Desperate Housewives’ is the top-rated show,” the newspaper reported. “Nearly 58 percent of the voters in those counties voted for President Bush.” I’m no statistician, but it would seem that the 42 percent of Atlanta-area voters who didn’t go for W. could also have boosted the smut-in-suburbia hit to the top of the ratings. After all, presidential voters had only two main choices, while television viewers choose from among dozens of programs. I’d imagine the fraction of the viewership that puts a TV show in first place couldn’t even begin to budge the electoral college. Even the 27.4 percent of the voters around Salt Lake City who, the New York Times noted, didn’t vote for Mr. Bush could probably hand “Housewives” its local fourth-place rating.

But give the Times’ its pet theory; let’s say Bush voters are “Housewives” fans. What then? That, of course, makes Bush voters frauds and hypocrites. And there’s nothing that enlivens a dispirited non-Bush voter more than “evidence” in the “newspaper of record” that Bush voters, particularly “values voters,” are frauds and hypocrites.

But there’s more. “On the CBS show ‘Joan of Arcadia,’ God is a recurring character,” the New York Times reports. “But he is not pulling in the viewers, and that goes for almost all states.” Gee, that’s too bad. Maybe he — He — needs new representation. Meanwhile, God’s floppola has convinced the networks that viewers aren’t looking for values on the tube after all. Otherwise, as Viacom’s Leslie Moonves told the newspaper, “I guess we’d be seeing ‘Joan of Arcadia’ doing better than ‘C.S.I.’”

I marvel at the puny mind that sees in all of literature and film only either-or; that is, two main plot lines: “Joan of Arcadia,” a show that features a 16-year-old girl’s encounters with God in different guises, and “C.S.I.,” a show that features forensics technicians’ encounters with different wounds. So much for the human experience.

Which is why I’m leaving the set off this and firing up the DVD-player to screen “Counsellor-at-Law,” a 1934 gem directed by William Wyler with John Barrymore as a Jewish lawyer who has married into high society, encountering anti-Semitism, adultery, snappy dialogue, despair and, come to think of it, renewal, along the way. God may be out, gore may be in, but the DVD player is on.

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