The Amiable Illusion

GLENN MCNATT

September 05, 1992|By GLENN MCNATT

Periodically, in response to events such as this week's Emmy Awards ceremony, I consider the egghead question, ''What does all this say about contemporary American society?'' Usually the answer I come up with is: ''Not a whole lot.''

TV is still pretty much the ''vast wasteland'' derided by critics in the 1950s. There have been changes, to be sure -- cable, for example, has vastly expanded the number of channels. But the changes only seem to have reinforced the essential sameness of the tube.

With few exceptions, the standard formats developed during television's golden age in the 1950s -- situation comedy, game show, police drama, daytime soaps -- remain staples of the medium. MTV has replaced ''American Bandstand,'' and the classic Western is dead except in movie reruns, but otherwise remarkably little has changed. We've seen it all before.

Yet we remain addicted to this companionable appliance. Americans spend as many hours a day as ever with the TV on. This suggests that perhaps it's not so much what is on TV that tells us anything important about American society but the simple fact that the TV is constantly on.

By way of illustration, there is an episode in the new ''Star Trek'' series in which the crew of the starship Enterprise is menaced by robotic aliens called ''borgs,'' whose only goal is to destroy and assimilate other intelligent life forms.

The crew manages to capture an injured borg, who tells them that, unlike humans, borgs have no identity outside their collective; the borgs' sense of self is so tied to the group that even when they sleep they hear the voices of all the other borgs speaking inside their heads.

The starship's crew, who prize their individuality, speculate it must be lonely to be a borg, without real friends. But the borg replies that, on the contrary, it is lonelier for humans, for when humans sleep each individual is locked up with only his or her own thoughts for company.

One might think of television as a sort of substitute for the collective voices that bound the fictional borgs together. It is how we hear each other's voices inside our heads (or at least one of those ways).

You frequently see this among people who live by themselves. They don't so much watch TV as live with its constant patter, meanwhile performing all sorts of minor chores, talking on the telephone, even reading or listening to music. The TV is merely a comforting presence offering the amiable illusion that one is not completely alone.

The illusion is necessary because modern life has sundered the dense network of face-to-face interactions that once provided context for much of everyday life. We live and work apart from family and friends, isolated among strangers in city apartments or suburban tracts that, like the products we consume, are mass-produced and interchangeable. Thus it is not unusual for the typical urban or suburban dweller to be more familiar with the character of a popular TV show than with the neighbor next door.

TV's power derives from its ubiquity rather than from any specific content. It is something we live with, day in and day out, like the weather. Still, the tube does promote a moral code.

Personally, I never could understand what conservatives were getting so worked up over in their diatribes against the ''values'' purveyed by TV. Far from overturning ''traditional values,'' TV is an unabashed celebrant of the virtues of normality. So wedded to the status quo are the premises on which most programming is based that the institution can fairly be said to uphold "traditional values" even when it defies convention.

Cop shows are a good example. There, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. Always. Good and evil are clearly delineated; there are no pleas for situational ethics or moral relativism (as there are, for example, in the current movie Western, ''Unforgiven,'' whose characters all display a degree of moral ambiguity).

Or take the sitcom. From ''Ozzie and Harriet'' to ''All In The Family'' to -- Vice President Quayle notwithstanding -- ''Murphy Brown,'' these shows have one overriding message: There is no problem in life, large or small, that cannot be confronted and overcome with the support of loving family and friends. ''Murphy Brown,'' indeed, is the exception that proves the rule.

TV's values actually reinforce, rather than threaten, the status quo. It is a revolutionary technology in service of conservative social ends. And like the fictional borgs' collective conscience, the ubiquitous babble of TV's companionable presence consoles the world's lonely, atomized individuals with a seductive, mass appeal: ''I am your friend. I am the tie that binds.''

Glenn McNatt is a Baltimore Sun editorial writer.

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