There was a problem with my television all last week. Or rather, there was a problem with me: I didn‘t want to watch it. It’s strange to feel guilty about not watching enough television, but guilt comes in many forms, and I‘m no longer surprised when a new one shows up. ”Did you see the new Survivor?“ someone asks. ”Er, actually no,“ I reply sheepishly. ”There was a problem with the satellite dish. Couldn’t get a picture. Damn thing just went south on me — took days to clear up.“
Actually, instead of watching the latest batch of exhibitionists duke it out in their beachwear, I was reading the newspaper at City Spa, glory of Pico Boulevard. There are TVs all over City Spa — in the gym, in the changing room and restaurant — but the sauna is sacrosanct, or perhaps just too hot. It‘s the perfect antidote to a cool medium, and I’ve been making use of it extensively. It was there that I read an article by Norah Vincent in the L.A. Times, damning us all for chortling at the silly sadism of programs such as Fear Factor (”in which contestants bob for chicken feet in a vat of live maggots“) while, in real life, journalist Daniel Pearl was being held by kidnappers (and, as it turned out, tortured and killed) somewhere in Pakistan.
The entertainment industry can‘t grind to a halt because an American journalist has been abducted, but I could understand Vincent’s anger. My God, the oceans of junk we produce! And how grotesque it was to hear newscasters squeeze an obligatory sentence about Pearl‘s plight into a paragraph otherwise taken up with promotional show-biz blather. Yet it was only a few evenings earlier that, still dripping from the sauna, I’d wandered upstairs to the gym, glanced at the TV, and then, like someone placed under a spell, become utterly engrossed in a dating show that included real-life footage of a hot young couple out on the town. There was no sadism here, silly or otherwise; this was just plain old voyeurism, and it was riveting in the same way that happening on two people making love in a field is riveting. Only, in this case, there was no shame attached. No one was going to scold me for watching two people I didn‘t know make eyes at each other on a television program.
Well, Norah Vincent might have had something to say about it, although I’m not sure whether the ”soulless frippery“ she condemns includes dating shows as well as programs involving scenes of mock torture. Asked to explain my reasons for watching this program, I suppose I would have said something like: ”Because it‘s there. Because that girl is sexy as hell and I want to see her stick her freakishly long pierced tongue into her date’s ear again.“ I think that would probably have covered it. And though I wouldn‘t have felt ashamed of myself, let’s not underestimate shame: Like guilt (see above), it‘s remarkably durable stuff, despite our increasingly strenuous efforts to conquer it.
A week after Pearl’s death was reported, I finally got around to watching Survivor, where the two ”tribes“ were competing to see who could eat the most pieces of fish soaked in a marinade ”that smells worse than a public toilet on a hot summer day,“ as presenter Mark Burnett put it. What this competition proved, other than the fact that almost any activity can be turned into a game, is that macho sports talk has become so pervasive as to have lost all sense of reality. It‘s one thing to shout, ”You can do it, man!“ on a basketball court; it’s another to holler ”C‘mon, bro!“ or ”You’re doin‘ it, baby, you got it!“ at someone trying not to regurgitate a putrid fish sauce. When it was all over, the victors acted as if they’d won the Super Bowl, while the man who let his team down looked appropriately put-upon: Sorry guys, I‘m just not as good at eating rotten food as you are.
Another day, another sauna, reading the L.A. Times yet again. (Unfortunately, no one leaves The New York Times or the Guardian lying around.) This time I came across an op-ed piece by Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, on the dangers of human cloning. As it happened, I’d just seen Rifkin discussing that very topic on an obscure university channel whose program lineup promised such thrill-packed items as ”Faculty Lounge Special“ and ”Denman Forestry Issues.“ Rifkin‘s argument, by now a fairly familiar one, is that once people start screening fetuses for disease-prone genes, they’ll start fiddling around with them in other ways too. In other words, if you‘re going to remove a gene that causes childhood leukemia, you might as well remove one that causes childhood obesity too. And while you’re at it, why not give baby‘s IQ a nudge and get rid of any potential myopia? If we’re not careful, Rifkin warned, procreation as we know it may turn into ”the ultimate shopping experience.“
Listening to Rifkin speak, I couldn‘t help thinking of Jennifer Garner and Alias, several episodes of which I’d just watched on tape. Stunningly beautiful in an almost manufactured way, Garner strikes me as the perfect female designer baby all grown up with her own television program. As Sydney Bristow, a CIA double agent infiltrating an enemy agency, there‘s nothing she can’t do except have a meaningful relationship with her dad. Everything else is a breeze. She has only to glance at a telephone number to memorize it. The world‘s languages trip off her tongue. She runs like a sprinter, scales buildings like an acrobat and flattens martial-arts experts twice her size with a flurry of balletic kicks. And when she gets home, after trouncing shadowy forces in Sao Paulo or Moscow or the Middle East, she enjoys a life of earnest study and warm interracial relationships until her beeper calls her back to duty. She’s just a little too good to be true.
Well, of course she is: She‘s essentially a cartoon character, and on one level it doesn’t really matter. The show isn‘t about the characters so much as it’s about the ever-shifting relationships between them and the various intelligence groups they represent. It‘s also a one-woman fashion show and, as far as that goes, it’s a masterpiece. (If a curiously strait-laced one: On Alias, only villains flirt, and when Bristow dons a tight rubber dress, it‘s purely for the good of the CIA.) But despite the dizzying, ever-expanding plotline and the cliffhanger endings that propel you toward the next episode, I can’t say that much of it stays with me, even though I enjoy it enormously while it‘s happening. The reason, I think, is that there’s very little reality to it. All the characters on the show act as if they were born and bred inside a TV.
You couldn‘t say that of The Avengers, old, pre–Diana Rigg episodes of which have been showing up almost every night on the Encore Mystery Channel. Patrick Macnee is there as secret agent John Steed, of course, with Honor Blackman as Mrs. Gale, the glamorous widow-spy. Like Garner, Blackman gets to show off her martial-arts moves, although they look comically feeble now. It’s hard to tell what‘s less realistic: Garner dispatching the kind of men most men would run away from, or Blackman knocking someone out with a punch that would barely dent a pillow.
But this is early-1960s television, as amateurish as a school play compared to the pulsating high-tech razzle-dazzle of Alias. Some of the props look like they’re made out of cardboard, and when it rains the sound is so badly miked you can barely make out the dialogue. But there are compensations. Watch enough of these episodes and you get a sense of Britain at the dawn of the Beatles era. A real cross section of society is presented, including a surprising number of formidable women. (Britain seems to have been absolutely crawling with villainesses.) There‘s some wit to the writing, too. (A self-effacing chemist: ”As a group, Mrs. Gale, scientists are boring, narrow-minded, and self-opinionated — rather like everybody else, in fact.“) And speaking of Mrs. Gale, Blackman is even lovelier than Garner, with the added virtue of appearing unmistakably flesh-and-blood. As for the purring, feline Macnee, I wonder what he would make of Alias’ agent Bristow. My guess is that he‘d find her a bit starved for fun, but then Macnee’s character belongs to a generation of action heroes who were able to save the world and enjoy a drink afterward.
My favorite Avengers moment so far is actually all about drink. It comes at a winetasting, to which Steed has gone to slyly pump a crook for information while they sample the various vintages. What‘s so wonderful about the scene is the way Macnee mixes his habitual teasing irony with an oenophile’s unabashed delight. He may be there on business, but that‘s not about to stop him from having fun, mocking the ritual of winetasting even as he’s loving every minute of it. And his flirtation with Blackman is priceless: She‘s beautiful, he’s suave, and they both know it and enjoy it. The scene is all about something you don‘t see much of on TV these days: pure pleasure.