Of Chimps and Men

Photo by Mark Hill
TWO NEW SERIES DARE TO TURN THE LENS BACK UPON THE factory of their making. One is among the last creations of the late television wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff, an apparently semiautobiographical satirical critique of the world in which he daily moved, brought to posthumous completion by a team that includes his widow. The other stars a bunch of apes. They are -- and I can't work out whether this is surprising or not -- nearly the same show.

Beggars and Choosers, which is the one with the human beings, concerns a fourth-place sort of network, called LGT, and the people who make it go; the title is taken from a quotation from Chairman Brandon that prefaces the feature-length premiere: "In television you are one of two things, either a beggar or a chooser. If you want to create, you are by definition a beggar. You will have to sell your ideas to one of a small number of television executives empowered to transform your fantasy into reality. They are the choosers." Furthermore, he classifies the choosers into glass-half-fulls, glass-half-empties and "those who ask, 'Does it have to be a glass?'" Tartikoff, celebrated in more than his little corner of the Earth as the man who made NBC the Network They Could Not Kill (Cheers, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Family Ties and The Cosby Show appeared on his watch, not to mention Punky Brewster and Knight Rider), seems himself to have been a half-full guy, and, at least in his later days, to have seen himself as something of a crusading iconoclast. He named his production company H. Beale Co. for the truth-maddened newscaster of the film Network, which Beggars and Choosers superficially resembles. "It saddens me to see people have become totally obsessed with demographics and making money," he told the Detroit News in 1996, the year before he died from complications of cancer of the lymph nodes. "Do I look at television and say it could be so much better? You bet. Do I look at myself as one of the warriors who can make it better? The answer to that is also you bet."

One is therefore led to imagine that new-in-the-saddle, vestigially idealistic network head Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin) is, if not fully modeled upon, then a kind of stand-in for, or a tribute to, that departed philosopher king, especially since he sports, like Tartikoff did, a Yale degree and a philanthropical wife (Homicide's Isabella Hofmann, given -- criminally -- little to do but cluck). We know he's on the side of the angels because it takes him unnervingly long to realize the baser intentions of others, and because he'd wanted originally to write plays as "the reincarnation of Clifford Odets" -- something no one is waiting for at the end of the 20th century. The show abounds with that kind of Cliffs Notesy, look-at-me-I'm-literate name-dropping, meant to establish the filmmakers' superiority to and self-knowing distance from the medium and the milieu in which they nevertheless swim: "As H.L. Mencken said, 'Hollywood is a grim industrial suburb populated by gangsters of enormous wealth.'" Mao, Thoreau, Hunter S. Thompson and Fred Allen are also referenced, and you who remember your Molière will know in advance all you need to about the character Lori Volpone (Charlotte Ross), an ambitious, manipulative, blond and bodacious vice president of development, knocked off the Faye Dunaway role in Network. Also among the dramatis personae are the prickly, wheelchair-bound owner of the network (Bill Morey, of The John Larroquette Show), who likes to dress up in his old officer's uniform and be "interrogated," if you follow me, and who comes on like something out of an old Robert Downey Sr. film; a vile but charming baby superagent; a closeted VP of talent (you are supposed to be surprised when another guy gets into bed with him, but I at least expect better of you than that); and a sitcom star (Northern Exposure's Paul Provenza) whose particulars scream "Jerry Seinfeld" and who is holding up the network for a fat raise while sleeping with president Malone's lovely young daughter, whom the script manages thrice to disrobe in two hours. (Don't get me wrong -- the human body is a beautiful thing.) There are 20 more episodes coming in past the green light, and so we might reasonably expect some ripening, some richening of these characters, but freshly unwrapped they are flat, uncomplicated and too clearly Good or Bad, and may, like the encapsulated meals of the future, be digested whole at a single gulp. None of them seems to care much about television, to love it at all.

TV is undeniably fit for satire, which is why it has been so often satirized. But if you're going to use a medium to criticize that medium, you'd better do a good job, lest you merely prove your point by bad example. And although the résumés of its major contributors (including co-producer/writer Peter Lefcourt, who won an Emmy for Cagney & Lacey, and director Michael Ritchie, a vet of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Big Valley) might lead one to assume that the goings-on herein are rooted in real event, little of it seems believable even by the elastic parameters of parody, and an air of disingenuousness hangs low over the proceedings. "Television is a public trust!" Malone cries in a moment of weirdly stilted passion. "That's why it's licensed by the federal government!" And yet the show leans heavily on the cheapest effects: gratuitous nudity, faux-sophisticated bad language -- one recurring gag concerns the question of whether cocksucker is hyphenated -- and soap-opera mechanics. Indeed, if the series would slough off the higher purpose and become the Melrose Place or Dallas that clearly lurks beneath its carapace of conscience, it could turn into some pretty decent trash.

THE CHIMP CHANNEL, LIKE BEGGARS AND CHOOSERS, CONCERNS the running of a television network, tells tales of ego and ambition, features a lecherous old tycoon and a narcissistic male star, and makes comic hay out of clips of and promos for imaginary shows, or sometimes, in this case, shows that do exist (The X-Files, Xena, Buffy), but with chimpanzees and orangutans playing all the parts. In a rough sense it is a literalization of the old statistical notion that if you give typewriters to enough monkeys one of them is accidentally going to write Shakespeare, or the season finale of Friends, and perhaps there was some direct comment intended upon competence in the TV business, or some Brechtian intent to employ the apes as a distancing device by which we might better comprehend our own monkey-shines. But that may be putting too fine a point on it. Almost appropriately, one might say, the show is not very good, though it's certainly worth taking a look at. I don't really approve of dressing up animals for human amusement, but I did laugh at the ape pretending to shave and the ape got up as a giant monster in the Hercules parody. Apart from the able echoes of various TV styles, nearly everything funny about the show involves making "animals" act like "people," while the dialogue that appears to come from between their flapping lips quickly, insistently and unfortunately resorts to insult, excretion, emission and sex. ("I could've been a great intern but I blew it." "Isn't that what interns are supposed to do?") If one chimp calling another a "stinking little pile of rat droppings" or observing "I bet you look hot in a thong" tickles your funnybone, however, pull up a chair, you're home.

IT HAS NOT BEEN MY POLICY HERE TO COVER MOVIES ON TELEvision (as opposed to those made for television), but now the power of nostalgia compels me: Turner Classic Movies, whose parent conglomerate owns -- I think this figure is correct -- all but 37 films made in America before the year 1960, this summer celebrates the Bowery Boys, those lovable mugs of postwar big-city misadventure, with three films shown, in generally chronological order, every Sunday through Labor Day. An eight-film marathon this Monday kicks it all off. Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and crew, hanging out in Louie's sweet shop, getting mixed up with spooks or spies, colored and enlarged the weekend afternoons of my unathletic childhood, and I appreciated them then not as kitsch or camp, but as persuasive models of camaraderie and endeavor. To put it in terms younger readers will understand, they were the forebears of Scooby Doo, Shaggy and company (Hall being both Scooby and Shaggy). Long takes with few cutaways betray the speed and economy with which these pictures, dozens and dozens of them, were made, and if by no pre-postmodern reckoning or objective technical standard are they any good, they're never cynical about the human need for entertainment or the ability to entertain. They don't comment on anything at all, but they hit what they aim for.

Premieres Saturday, June 19, 10 p.m.

Thursdays, 7:05 p.m.

THE BOWERY BOYS | TCM | Sundays at noon, beginning
June 27 | Marathon Monday, June 21, beginning at 5 p.m

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