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The Arts

Thinking Outside the Box

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/26/2001

On the Saturday after the attacks, the Trivializer was back up and running again. Eating a sandwich at a restaurant, I watched Oprah silently sic Dr. Phil on the nation's grief on the television over the bar. Later that afternoon, teen-pop king Carson Daly was back in his nearly vacant court at Total Request Live, getting Puffy's take on the situation, asking him how it was going to affect his busy travel schedule. After four days of around-the-clock news coverage that cost the TV networks tens of millions of dollars, they started running commercials again. I thought of Miss Cleo, the ubiquitous Caribbean-accented 900-number psychic, and her ads, pledging hourly to predict the future. I found myself wondering what she could charge for a reading if she had predicted any of this.

Modern television's greatest strength and biggest weakness is that it is capable of bringing so much to us in a convenient box. The first battle of a new terrorist incursion on our soil played out blow-by-blow on live TV, a dozen networks bringing the unthinkable directly into our homes. Patriarchal anchors gave us the worst possible news with grave assurance; news directors unspooled the latest unimaginable images. Dust-frosted correspondents risked their lives to deliver ground-zero perspectives from the chaos. When we could think of nothing else, television devoted itself to meeting our needs with all its resources--and thereby, I think, helped keep the nation sane amid the insanity.

But as the initial trauma subsided and the tide of breaking news slowed to a rivulet, television had to keep bringing us around-the-clock something, so it cautiously returned to its regular programming. The Trivializer creaked and whirred back into action.

See, the televisual arts don't handle big emotions and genuine tragedy very well. The tube doesn't generally do sober reflection and catharsis; it does movies of the week and very special episodes. And there's so much of it. For a while, it was as if we were all glued to one big reality-show running on every channel. Now all the nation's talk-show hosts, pundits, and local-affiliate general managers feel the need to weigh in with their set of guests, their take, their words of loss and encouragement. When David Letterman dropped his grumpy, ironic persona and went back on the air with a tearful monologue, it was a genuinely touching moment. By the time Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien had done the same the next night, it seemed somehow unoriginal, mostly because it was on TV. ( Although The Daily Show's Jon Stewart broke through the clutter a few days later with an emotional near-meltdown when his news-parody show returned from emergency reruns. Stewart, like Letterman, seemed genuinely shaken to have to return to doing a half-hour of television comedy at a time like this.)

I think the constant bath of stilted, stand-in reality TV pipes into our homes under ordinary circumstances is a big part of the reason recent events took us so by surprise. International coverage has been disappearing from U.S. television news for years, replaced with heart-warming human-interest featurettes and health-issue updates. Maybe the majority of Americans wouldn't seem so shocked that a significant portion of the rest of the world hates America so much if we were more familiar with what goes on in the rest of the world.

Of course, the human-interest bits and health tips get better ratings than reporting on the lines of power in the Middle East and our nation's business and military interests there, and that's what matters to programmers. TV coddles us because we like to be coddled, and we can afford it. If I lived in a country where my daily existence, my very life and death, were deeply affected by the governmental policies of an alien people for whom "Must-See TV" is a genuine weekly priority, I might well hate America too.

Television continues to bring us vital news of imminent war of some kind, and reporting on this period of history will feed TV news magazines for years to come. Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. I got home the Monday after the attacks just as Everybody Loves Raymond was coming on. As I sat there on the couch and watched it, I somehow didn't quite feel comfortable. I had told myself I "needed" some mindless entertainment--what we say we turn to television for, most often--but it was as if I could hear the Trivializer trundling along in the background. I hope I can hold onto that sense in the months to come.

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