Saturday, January 20, 2007

Even more life after TV

In the '70s and '80s, almost everybody agonized over the supposedly inordinate hold of television on children's time and minds. Parents, teachers, and psychoanalysts worried about the controlling violence, the social instability, the emotional emptiness and discontent, the sexual abnormalities they suspected the small box would work on the psyches of generations of children.

For a whole decade now, the same fears are being expressed, this time about another small box--to be more accurate, a whole information network carried on a decreasing screen size--with a greater reach and more dangerous potential. Perhaps another decade, and we will be worrying about an even more powerful adversary, still beyond our ken today, that will be invented to capture man's imagination and, at the same time, endanger his humanity.

With time--28 years now after I wrote these pieces--I have come to a more serene acceptance of the inevitable destiny of the human race. As thinking occupants of this planet, we cannot stop the creativity and ingenuity our minds are capable of. All we can do is hope that as science and technology advance, so will faith and the integrity of the human spirit.

"Impressions," TV Times, 27 May-2 June 1979


There is still an overwhelming majority of crime dramas on local television, compared to shows belonging to other genres, as far as prime-time canned programs are concerned. On the present schedule, there are as many as 12 American and 4 British crime dramas during the week, placing the ratio on the average at 2-and-a-little-more canned crime dramas a night.

Not that this should cause intense worry among social scientists, educators, and psychoanalysts. Or so I believe. The thing is to get an adequate and palatable mix of different shows from the other genres, which should not be too difficult considering that the present weekly schedule offers at least 8 half-hour comedy rib-ticklers, 5 musicals, 7 action/adventure shows, 6 dramatic series, and 3 science-fiction teasers. And we are not even counting the local shows, which are nil on crime and heavy on tearjerkers and musical/variety shows.

And if you notice, even the canned crime dramas are now coming with a very welcome shot of humor, certainly to keep the violence from further disrupting those who are already a little emotionally unsteady. The new season of Quincy, M.E., with its remarkable use of forensic medicine and its unabating analyses of corpses, often takes time off from crime-snooping to deliver a lesson or two on living and human relations. And Jack Klugman often affects an occasionally piquant face and delivers a timely hilarious line.

Eddie Capra Mysteries goes light a great many times. Capra is persistent, merciless, savage, shrewd, irreverent. But he also exhibits a marked sense of humor, a dedication to the truth, and a definite love for children. And who can deny that much of what keeps the young glued to CHiPs is not the action, not the violence, but Erik Estrada? Kaz is not only funny, he is uproarious, a true caricature, with Ron Leibman acting the role--the lawyering, the coarse shouting, the drum-playing--with cool humor and easy amiability. Even the prosecution lawyer with whom Kaz always tangles in court is a true and truly amusing caricature.

Of course, Starsky and Hutch may keep the blood pouring in great arterial gushes and surely, many times, we want to rap Delvecchio and his big mouth. But Harry-O, with his constant philosophizing about life and living, paints a sensitive portrait of the detective as an innocent: neither tolerating nor espousing violence, but dreaming only of the beach when a case is over, and a girl to go with the beach cottage. He is at once poignant and wonderfully funny and, in the balance of adult perceptions, must surely weigh two tons above the others.

Even the second-stringers in the list of canned crime fighters are real lightweights, though lovable ones. Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-O is the superfluous champion of self-conscious overacting; Jigsaw John is middling, plodding, but competent; Man Undercover's David Cassidy suffers--on the local schedule--from heavier competition on the same timeslot.

Which is why I can hardly agree with those parents who keep their children off television completely for one reason or another: there's too much crime and violence on TV; there's very little creativity; it is nothing more than a fantasy machine. I certainly do not think you should make the television a full-time babysitter. I also do not think you should let children watch certain shows without some sane adult company.

But I believe that the television set, properly used, can be another complement to a child's never-ending world of learning. After all, a child's day should be a beautiful patchwork of teaching activities, enriching contacts and broadening experiences. With a parent's help, television can be one more of such--constantly opening a child's eyes to the world around him, his heart to people everywhere, his spirits to the beauty of ideals and the nobility of a good life. And every time I watch television with the children--answering with utmost care the endless why's of my three-year-old thinker, wondering at the images etching grooves in the memory of my one-year-old visualizer--my belief is reinforced.

The technique, of course, is to provide the child with a wealth of other experiences throughout the day and throughout all his growing-up days so that television will not become his exclusive guide to life and reality, so that television will become--with enough selectivity--another useful source of information, knowledge, entertainment, even art. As it really is.

Besides, what is wrong with vicarious experience, with fantasy? Literature is no less a vicarious experience. So is film (and ours was the film-and-literature generation). And theater. Fantasy can make up the stuff of ambition, heroism, courage, daring, idealism. As long as the child is advised that television is not the world, and that a bigger reality flows all around him--not out of the small home screen-- then, television shows should comprise just one more addition to the collective memory of his generation and the singular development of his own human and humanizing wholeness.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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