Dying TV executive rages at the medium Critical: Brandon Tartikoff's disgust with other executives and their shows is displayed in November Esquire.

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October 26, 1997|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,BOSTON GLOBE

Erstwhile TV Wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff did not go gentle into that good night, but rather raged, raged against the dying -- or at least the creeping mediocrity -- of the medium he once dominated.

The former NBC programming wizard who gave us "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" -- epitaph enough for anyone -- stayed tuned to the TV industry in the months before he succumbed to cancer in August at age 48. Tartikoff was not much impressed by what he saw, and he passed on his opinions to his friend Nikki Finke, who passes them on to us in the November Esquire.

Here's Tartikoff on his successor as head of NBC's entertainment division, Warren Littlefield: "He's a cockroach. He's going to survive nuclear war."

On NBC's "Friends" copycat comedies: "There's a lampshade on the head of every fifth character in all these shows. The promos just make me want to grab Valium." On Jamie Tarses, head of entertainment programming at ABC: "The media created her, and the media now is going to cast her out." On actor Eddie Murphy: "The most selfish human being on the planet."

You can call it truth-telling in extremis, or you can call it mere show-biz cattiness. But the most striking thing is not these slams at one-time colleagues, but rather Tartikoff's battles with his doctors so he could meet with producers and writers instead of getting the rest he needed. That's right: With death closing in on him, Brandon Tartikoff's idea of a good time was attending a bunch of meetings. TV executives truly are different from the rest of us.

In praise of religion

Do liberals hate God?

Of course not, but two leading journals of progressive thought argue in their current issues that too many liberals have allowed themselves to be perceived that way, or at least as anti-religion, while failing to recognize the benefits of "faith-based activism."

In the American Prospect, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore note that many liberals speak of religion only to inveigh against the Christian Coalition or to warn about eroding the separation of church and state. "It's all too negative," the authors declare. "American religion is a crucial national resource for addressing social problems, and liberals need to say so in accents that don't sound partisan. We need a truce in our God wars."

In Mother Jones, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Klein continues his laudable efforts to challenge the cozy assumptions of his ideological allies. In particular, Klein notes that "some civic activists seem righteously wedded to atheist or agnostic positions, as if the impulse to do good is best if it emanates from reason alone."

That sort of absolutism, Klein writes, "resembles the religious right's fundamentalism." Besides, he points out, many of our nation's most important reforms -- from abolitionism to the New Deal to the civil rights movement -- have been inextricably linked to religious faith.

But given contemporary liberalism's secular focus, and the shrieks emanating from the left every time a parochial school gets so much as a used public-school textbook, American Prospect and Mother Jones are preaching to the unconverted here. It will be instructive to see if their exhortations bear fruit.

Promises, promises

Some on the right, meanwhile, incline toward spirituality-as-spectacle.

In the New Republic for Oct. 27, Hanna Rosin casts her jaundiced eye upon the Promise Keepers, and finds a bunch of men "schooled in the mega church movement -- that watered down, gushy religion now sweeping America," which specializes in "public, mechanized confessions of sin" and the "sharing" of "feelings."

But Rosin sees the roots to such movements as essentially political, rather than religious. To her, they are part of the "emote on command" style perfected by Bill Clinton and presently being pushed upon Republicans by pollster Frank Luntz, who last summer distributed a now-famous memo chastising the GOP for being "linguistically out of touch with the American people."

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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