By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
WHEN RONALDO SCORED HIS SECOND GOAL against Japan last week — prompting jubilant yellow-and-green-clad fans to break into an impromptu samba — I remembered the famous putdown by Charles de Gaulle. “Brazil,” he said, “is not a serious country.” But while the general thought he was being crushing, he was actually explaining why the Old World fell in love with the New.
The USA isn’t a serious country either — not at its best, anyway. What the world treasures in America is not the fervent rectitude with which we export, sometimes violently, our vaulting ideas of freedom. It’s the alluring form our freedom takes — humor, frivolity, the bearable lightness of being. We’ve got dada in our DNA.
American culture specializes in the art of escaping from life (which, as the Buddha reminds us, is suffering). Unseriousness is the American Way.
By such a standard, one of our great patriots died last week at age 83. I refer, of course, to Aaron Spelling, the Prospero of prime time (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, Beverly Hills 90210), whose passing received nowhere near the media hoopla it deserved. Just the obligatory obits, a few brief, ironical appreciations. With customary lack of imagination, Time devoted this week’s cover to Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that big stick again), dividing the familiar yarn into chapters: “The Self-Made Man,” “Charging Into Fame,” “Birth of a Superpower,” “How to Shrink the World.” In fact, one could just as easily use those same phrases to map the career of Aaron Spelling, whose rough ride from the Longhorn State to Melrose Place is a more truly modern American success story than T.R.’s commuter trek from Manhattan to Washington, D.C.
After all, unlike Teddy, the self-made Spelling wasn’t born into privilege. The frail son of a Russian immigrant tailor who settled in Dallas (cue the crackly anti-Semitic slurs), Spelling was in many respects a quintessential Angeleno. He came to Los Angeles to reinvent himself beneath the bright California skies that, unlike most other places in 1940s America, didn’t give a damn who you started out as. After a few struggling years as a character actor — mouse-faced and skinny, he resembled an uncharismatic young Dennis Weaver — Spelling found his bully pulpit as an impresario.
Over the next half century, he made himself into the most successful television producer of all time by giving viewers what they wanted, whether they should want it or not. Because Spelling’s shows were so untethered from reality — The Mod Squad taught an entire generation never to use the term “Solid!” — it’s easy to miss that he was an incomparably greater figure in TV history than such sacred cows as Edward R. Murrow or Norman Lear. Spelling changed entertainment all over the globe: I’ve seen local knockoffs of his shows everywhere from London to Bangkok. Absurd as it sounds, he was a cultural force on the scale of Elvis, Spielberg or Oprah.
AARON SPELLING WAS ALSO A FIGURE of fun. Just as his work was routinely described as trash, so the man himself was mocked for parvenu tackiness. He had snow trucked into Beverly Hills for Christmas parties, and he promoted the acting career of his not abundantly talented daughter. Who can forget those episodes of Fantasy Island or The Love Boat where, to earn a paycheck, some poor, unlucky guest star had to exclaim about little Tori’s cuteness or charm? (In a touch worthy of a Spelling potboiler, Tori overcame their estrangement to show up at her father’s deathbed.) As if erecting a monument to his own lack of taste, he built “The Manor,” a hideous 56,000-square-foot home in Holmby Hills that looks like a McMansion scaled for Mount Olympus, although it’s hard to imagine Zeus and Hera insisting on their own bowling alley.
But good taste has never been essential to pop-culture brilliance (seen Graceland?), and often proves a liability. There’s a reason Charlie’s Angels got vastly higher ratings than Masterpiece Theatre, and it isn’t that TV viewers are boobs blind to the Shakespearean artistry of Upstairs, Downstairs. Rather than hammering away at big themes, Spelling’s shows toyed with the Zeitgeist, making hay of ’60s rebellion, Women’s Lib, Reagan-era wealth worship. They were breezy, energetic fun — shamelessness was part of their allure. And the man knew it. Like the studio moguls of an earlier generation, he had started on the outside looking in, and this experience of yearning was profound. It gave him a killer instinct for what the public likes.
And what it likes is what Spelling himself liked and eventually came to symbolize, all that’s gaudy and seductive about Southern California — sun, skin, money and just enough safe, sub-Manson-level craziness to keep things interesting. As an artistic vision, this may not exactly be Tolstoyan, but it’s no more childish than May the Force Be With You.
I don’t know anyone who didn’t enjoy at least some Spelling shows — over 50 years, he produced around 200 — but they always brought out the snootiness in critics. Some of this was the class snobbery that’s forever condescending to some imaginary lower-class Them (variously seen as “rednecks,” “white trash,” “Middle Americans,” “red staters”) who, unlike enlightened Us, are supposedly unable to distinguish between trash and Quality Television — like, oh, All in the Family (which actually displayed a contempt for blue-collar Americans that Spelling would never have countenanced). But much of this disdain also grew from the bizarre, dated but still common belief that television is somehow not as “classy” as the movies, even though there’s not a Hollywood picture in our theaters that can hold a candle to Deadwood.