I like television, but I do not doubt it is an infernal machine. It warps our political discourse, picks our pockets, debases our relations, kills conversation, and encourages quick and unconsidered reaction even as it keeps us nailed in place, inactive. (Unless it's to dial an 800 number -- send that ab-thing now.) Radio and the yellow press earlier accomplished and continue to accomplish much the same things but on nowhere near the scale and with nowhere near the psychic penetration: Anyone who doubts the hypnotic power of TV has never tried to turn one off. In the words of Godard (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Luc Picard, now, is that just a coincidence?), quoted here largely to establish a high tone for the column: "L'ennui est que, si on commence à regarder la TV, on ne s'en détache pas. Ce qu'il faut, c'est ne pas la regarder" -- once you start watching, you cannot stop; the only solution is not to watch at all.
And yet in every Faustian bargain there is real temporal profit. At the touch of a button, one's view is flooded with comedy! drama! news and sports! pulled right out of the air like magician's scarves. The globe is folded at its four corners into a little box. Granted that one might be better off reading a book, or throwing a ball, or playing the glockenspiel, or knitting a muffler, and granted that for some individuals television becomes a substitute for living and for some families an excuse not to talk, it may nevertheless serve as a balm to the weary, a light in the darkness, and ... an excuse not to talk. We are all kings in front of a TV, enthroned and sceptered. Jesters, jousters, journalists -- we bring them on, we make them leave. Clown not funny? Click -- off with his head. News bad? Click -- kill the messenger. Plot too corny? Click -- into the cornfield.
TV both mirrors our own lives and offers a window on the world, and though the window is often warped and the mirror cracked, the clever viewer (and I do mean you) will make the necessary perceptual adjustments. (Even crap television has something to tell us about the way we live, though the message is not always, if ever, the one intended.) At its best -- and often at its worst -- it reminds us that the world is a marvelous and terrifying place. At the very least it provides an occasion to thank heaven we are not the people on the news, or on Richard Bey -- or Richard Bey, for that matter.
Channel Zero, the creation of young Canadian Steven Marshall, is an earnest if inchoate attempt to open that world-window and remake the view in the process. Believing commercial television to be compromised beyond any claim to human usefulness, Marshall has devised as a kind of run this "global video-magazine" financed by uncensoring "private investors" and available only on videotape. (Tower stores are set to carry it locally.) Issue 1, Planet Street, is a Handycam scrapbook of Marshall's international Wanderjahr that finds him engaging Slovenian skinheads, a Belizean crackhead, Parisian gigolos (that's what they call themselves, quaintly), media critic Neil Postman, and a couple of good old American conspiracy theorists; what the reports lack in depth they make up in home-movie immediacy. Getting his first sight of a South African shantytown, Marshall gasps from behind the lens, "Oh wow." It sounds like a slacker joke, but it's not the wrong reaction.
Essentially a VHS version of what we of long memory knew as the "underground newspaper," Channel Zero, like those fish-wrappers of yore, is dedicated to the quixotic proposition that the truth will set free the people. (And War Is Over If You Want It.) "Only when information and its technological channels are open to all corners of the globe," C.Z. proposes, "can the healing of our planet truly begin." Well ... yeah. But at $25 (Canadian) for the two-tape first issue, the chances that this particular packet of information (or the about-to-be-released "a quasi-fictional" This Is Channel Zero..., touted as "Noam Chomsky meets Mission: Impossible," and you can decide foryourselff just how good that sounds) will reach any but well-heeled, already kindred spirits are somewhat limited. (Plans for a record company and "pirate radio station" are also bruited.)
Broadcast TV, which is more or less free to anyone with a receiver (which in America is to say nearly everyone), is still the name of the game: people watch it, and in spite of the heavy paw of commerce, it manages to deliver a modicum of uncomfortable and inspiring (by which I do not mean "inspirational") truths. Though the six half-hours of Carole Lucia Satrina and Eugene Marner's Listening at the Luncheonette arrive by the old road of public TV -- maintained in large part by big business -- their intent is no less radical than that of Planet Street and their effect more subtly stirring. Shot in and around half a dozen mostly working-class eateries across the country, from a Chinese bakery in Flushing, to a Seattle restaurant run and frequented by the deaf, to a Native American diner in the Wisconsin woods, to union strike kitchens in Decatur, Illinois, this elegant little series spins from simple conversation a splendid portrait of human diversity and common humanity. Themes recur from cafe to cafe: the primacy of the land, the poetics of work, the meaning of community, cultural pride vs. acculturation, the abstract cruelties of governments and corporations. But none of it seems forced, and all of it is entertaining -- the way good talk is. It also suggests that even at this late state of saturation we are less formed by the media than by the particulars of how we earn our keep, b the people around us and by the place we live, and that, the Age of Franchisement notwithstanding, man worlds still exist between the shining seas.
Oliver's Travels, on "Mystery!" all this month, propels Alan Bates and Sinéad Cusack across northern England and Scotland at so great and leisurely a length and with so many scenic set pieces (no landmark left unexplicated) that I can't help but suspect it was underwritten by the British Board of Tourism. This is the very terrain of The 39 Steps, and the show replicates Hitchcock's standard mix of sex, wit, murder and long-distance flight, and borrows liberally form his and other films. (The plays actually point out the references: "Remember Joseph Cotten in The Third Man," Bates advises just as you're remembering Joseph Cotten in The Third Man.) Although the mystery is not compelling -- it barely seems to engage the principals, even when they're being strafed by helicopter -- the plot ill-cobbled and the dialogue oddly stagy for a story unfolded so much on the run (no one talks, but they banter), Bates is charming enough once you get used to him licking your face, and Cusack is a bright light burning welcome at the gates of middle age. I've been on worse trips. And there's all that fine foreign scenery, filling up the living room from half a world away -- how ever do they do it?
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1996 and 2011