Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out
In defense of television shows we're not supposed to like
FEBRUARY 1, 1999: For some strange reason, folks seem to think we Metro Pulsians live on a steady diet of Masterpiece Theater, CNN, and The Simpsons. While repeated intake of each of these shows does shape our editorial character (for lack of a better word), each and every editorial staff member has a few television skeletons in his or her closet.
Confession is good for the soul, they say. So now we must confess our guilty TV pleasures in the hope that we can free ourselves from any shame felt by enjoying this televised junk food. Here are three of our favorite guilty pleasures and our reasons for loving them.
The thing is, this isn't really a guilty pleasure because I'm not embarrassed about liking it. Not even a little bit. Sure, people look at me a little funny when I say it's my favorite show, like I'm kidding or trying to be trashy-chic or calculatedly ironic. But that's OK. Like Howlin' Wolf said, the little girls understand.
TV critics do tooEntertainment Weekly recently called Buffy "the best show on television"but Buffy's core audience is obviously the junior high-to-college female demographic around which the WB network has built its mini-empire. Those Buffy true believers may not even be able to articulate why the show is so good; they may say they like it 'cause Sarah Michelle Gellar is cool or David Boreanaz is hot or just because they wish they could go around kicking butt and putting stakes through the heart of evil.
But I'm guessing that what they really dig is the way Buffy's world mirrors their own; the way her fears about the future, uncertainties about love, and rocky relationships with her friends and her mom resonate with adolescent reality. The difference is, Buffy also offers a catharsis. Whenever the (sometimes surprisingly weighty) dramatic themes threaten to turn the whole show gloomy, some demon or vampire lord or satanic cult will turn up in desperate need of a whuppin', and Buffy and pals get to forget their problems for a little while.
Despite the prominence of its moody heroine, Buffy is really an ensemble show packed with great characters: the adorably mousy Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy's best friend and an aspiring witch; the clueless Xander (Nicholas Brendon), the would-be boy hero lost in a world of strong women; Giles (the oh-so-British Anthony Stewart Head, from those Taster's Choice commercials), Buffy's stuffy mentor; the snobby Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Xander's one-time flame, who's more bothered by the nerdiness of Buffy's clique than by their frequent encounters with evil incarnate; Oz (Seth Green), Willow's boyfriend, who plays in a rock band and also happens to be a werewolf; and of course Angel (Boreanaz), Buffy's star-crossed paramour, a vampire whose love for Buffy literally threatens to take away his soul.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon doesn't pull any punches with his storylines. When Angel turned evil last season, he brutally murdered Giles' girlfriend; earlier this year, the normally comic-relief Cordelia was impaled on a spike and nearly died; Buffy's mother, under the influence of demon children, recently tried to burn her daughter at the stake; and, most dramatically, Buffy had to kill Angel to save the earth (he eventually came back to undead life, but things have never been quite the same between them). Along with the thrills and chills come the looniest social satire this side of The Simpsons, winsome teen romance, and the sharpest sardonic dialogue around.
So go ahead, watch Law and Order or Firing Line or whatever it is that makes you feel like a discerning viewer. Me and the kids will be over here, watching the smartest show on TV.
Jesse Fox Mayshark
With his theme song, "The Riders of the Silver Screen are gone," Marshall Andy plaintively calls to the audience for his Saturday-morning show on public TV: older men nostalgic about watching cowboy movies at the Saturday matinee, "when candy only cost a nickel."
The Marshall continues his reverie: "The popcorn sure smelled good; I'd go back if I could..."
I probably trespass on Marshall Andy's demographics. I have only vague memories the sad latter days of Saturday matinees at the Rivieraor was it the Tennessee? They showed short movies for kids, and between them a clown would come out and give a humorous lecture. I strongly disliked caramel, butterscotch, licorice, malted milk, and all chocolate that had nuts growing in it. But in the theater there was candy everywhere, smeared on kids' ugly faces, gumming up their crew cuts.
Outnumbering adults always made me acutely uncomfortable. I'd never read Lord of the Flies, but it was easy to picture something like that happening if they didn't open those big doors soon.
I, for one, wouldn't go back if I could. You couldn't pay me.
But, for some reason, I've made a habit of Riders of the Silver Screen. Every Saturday the Marshall hosts a miniature film festival of scratchy copies of scratchy movies with actors who, I think, later got jobs in Houston as the first NASA engineers. They mostly stand in rooms talking, their boots nailed firmly to the floor, or hang onto black-and-white horses as the animals race back and forth in front of big rocks. Often, as they hang on, the cowboys shoot pistols into the air with a flick of the hand as if they were flinging the bullets, or maybe Milk Duds, at the bad guys.
Every once in a while, Marshall Andy appears in his white cowboy hat as, with his sidekick, Frosty, they discuss the nuances of these films, the stars who went on to bigger things or died tragically. Frosty's an elderly man with white canopy eyebrows. He looks like Lloyd Bridges, except moreso. Frosty's the classic trustworthy sidekick, and you gather he's done a few of these movies, himself.
Marshall Andy has no illusions about cinema as Art. He routinely calls them all "B Westerns," and when he does, I sometimes wonder if the guests he has on the show are offended. But surely they notice that Marshall Andy speaks of "B Westerns" with such pride you get the impression he strongly prefers them to "A Westerns." And because he does, you do too.
After all, there's something appealing about the herds of black-and-white horsemen and scratchy monotones. It goes well with a tin cup of coffee and a plate of peppery huevos rancheros and, unlike all other television, doesn't intrude on the sunny peace of a Saturday morning.
This idyll sometimes ends in jarring color, with Marshall Andy in a fluorescent-lit basement somewhere, singing cowboy songs before a stoic country band. The sidemen look sober and tired, though maybe it's just the contrast with their ebullient Marshall. It makes you wonder what they really think of him. Then we hear the theme again:
Now they're riding where the river meets the sun
The Marshall sounds mysteriously triumphant as he sings about those folks never riding the silver screen again, and Frosty waves from a fence post as Marshall Andy himself hangs on as a horse gallops away across a field, gone indeed until next week.
My last year of college is what finally pushed me over the edge. Before that, I'd had three cable-free years, which effectively added up to three TV-free years since you can only get an abundance of static-filled stations without cable in the mountains of Pennsylvania. The idiot box was used only in conjunction with the VCR and we rented highbrow, oh-so-artsy fare like Aquirre: Wrath of God and The Seventh Seal. And, when serious drinking needed to be done, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
But by the time I was a senior and forced to write an ugly, unwieldy thesis about medieval theatre, I firmly believed that my brain would simply explode if I tried to wedge one more character-building funless fact in it. So, I got cable.
It was like Dorothy stepping out of her transported house into the land of Oz. Pretty pictures, talking heads, sit-coms, and, thanks to the geniuses at MTV, video. Nirvana. Bliss. Every night I would do my best impersonation of plastic lawn furniture, stacked in front of the teevee.
One miraculous day, quite by accident, I stumbled upon the premiere episode of Real World, the one in New York. Seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped...it was conceptually brilliant. Here's what the voyeur in everyone wants, a glimpse into someone else's existence in order to discover that they go through the same kind of crap you doverité without having to sit through pretentious film school pedantics and grainy black and white.
My friends, however, scoffed. Still do, in fact. "In the real world you have to pay rent," they say. True, and I've never lived in an apartment half as glam as the place the real world kids get, but it's not the physical surroundings that make the show. Real World is all about characters and relationships, not explosions and the supernatural, which may be why it is universally scorned by the television intelligentsia.
And now, almost seven years and seven installments later, I still watch. Not as passionately as I used to, granted. I've gotten a little bit too old to really identify with the early-20s traumas that crop up during the course of the series, but I still love to see the environments and situations that these specimens find themselves in. Road Rules, especially the current series in Latin America, is my new guilty fav, probably due to the unusual adventures more than the psychological development. There's just something vicariously gratifying about watching the six Road Rules strangers overcome their lack of cash and the oddity of the tasks thrown at themkind of like a primer for the real, real world.
While I'm no longer as addicted to the series as I used to be, I still duck my head a little and mumble about it whenever asked why I have a few of the books. In fact, I wanted to simply die when my husband caught me watching the one of the many cross-promoted out-take tapes, which I had rented in a fit of silliness from our local Blockbuster. It was as if I were doing something highly sleazy, like checking out Deep Throat or When Animals Attack, Part 3, rather than a simple-yet-inspired MTV product that has become part of our collective subconscious.
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