The Year in TV

Certainly the biggest story in and on television this year was the war in Iraq. The calculated decision by the Pentagon to embed in the theater of war all manner of journalists (including reporters from MTV and Men’s Health magazine) greatly increased the quantity of news stories filed during the war.

Whether it increased the quality or objectivity of the reporting is another story. The Pentagon’s gamble that reporters would come to identify with their units and thus provide more favorable coverage proved a winning strategy. While good reporters strive for objectivity and professional distance, especially when covering such an important topic as war, journalists would have to be robots not to identify with the soldiers responsible for their safety. And while too many reporters seemed to be larking about on battleships with a childish, gee-whiz approach, it was difficult not to admire the dedication that led journalists like NBC’s David Bloom and The Washington Post’s Michael Kelly to, in essence, give their lives for their work.

Despite the obvious dedication of many reporters, however, there were times when many must have wondered if the television networks and their employees grasped the import of what they were covering. Was this war or simply another reality show? The zippy graphics, stirring music and lighthearted banter between the anchors in New York and Atlanta and those in the field was often hard to stomach, particularly in light of the terrible events they were supposed to be covering. After the initial assault on Baghdad, one CNN field reporter told the anchor that he had a charming vignette to share with viewers: the soldiers among whom he was embedded had heard about the decapitation attempt on Saddam Hussein from CNN first, rather than from their officers. Comments like this gave the impression that the war existed to charm the viewer, or to provide CNN with a way to advertise their product.

Watching those in the field, many of whom seem to have been chosen for their youthful good looks, also made one wonder if they had not been specifically cast for the part. (Real World Iraq, one commentator termed it.) The endless airing of stories about journalists training with troops, journalists learning how to put on gas masks and journalists explaining why their particular unit was one of the most important in the war also raised questions about who was at the center of the story. During the war’s first weekend, the CNN crawl along the bottom of the screen read: CNN reporter Nic Robertson crosses the border into Kuwait. Brace yourself for the next wave of journalismthe inevitable glut of memoirs by reporters stationed in Iraq: My War in Iraq, by Geraldo Rivera, and so on.

As a measure of how deeply they were embedded, few TV reporters (or anchors, for that matter) were able to resist the temptation to pick up military jargon. We heard not about troops, but boots on the ground, who were degrading the enemy forces and mopping up resistance. Such euphemisms serve to insulate readers and viewers from the horrible realities of war, as Paul Fussell pointed out in his book Wartime. In a chapter about home-front morale during the Second World War, he writes: Mopping up after an enemy attack suggests household cleaning, rather like cleaning the enemy out of some remaining positions, or, quasi-domestically, pockets of resistance. (Impossible not to think of hot water and strong soap.)

Few reporters also evinced any difficulty with the term decapitation to describe the military’s initial hit on Saddam Hussein’s bunker. One might argue that it was at least more direct than regime change. (Assassination would probably have been too blunt for an American public accustomed to think of their collective actions as beyond reproach.) Similarly, the term shock and awe, served up by the Pentagon to describe the first air assault on Baghdad, was assumed wholeheartedly into the journalistic lexicon, with little questioning or reflection. But after the supine response of journalists at President Bush’s final press conference before the war, the media’s cheerful swallowing of official Pentagon terminology was not surprising.

Overall, television provided viewers with vastly more real-time images, and so increased our understanding of what some parts of war look like. But only some parts. Despite its up-close-and-personal approach, American television showed a sanitized war, where no blood was spilled, all the weapons were smart and all the Iraqi citizens delighted to see us. As Michael Massing pointed out in a trenchant article in The New York Review of Books (5/29), TV viewers would never have guessed that during the day when U.S. troops made their first raid into Baghdad, between 2,000 and 3,000 Iraqi troops were killed. The only casualties shown on CNN that day, wrote Mr. Massing, were the type of casualties thought appropriate for broadcastthose assisted by compassionate Americans.

In such ways television presented a false picture of the war in Iraq. Indeed, once the bombing of Baghdad commenced, the boosterish bent of even the major networks silenced any voices who might have offered a thoughtful analysis of the long-term results of the warapparently out of fear of being thought unpatriotic. When did seeking the truth and loving one’s country become mutually exclusive?

Perhaps during future conflicts we could hope for more questions and fewer pictures. But this will probably not happen, because for the networks this would mean less money and lower ratings.

On a far, far lighter note, the remainder of the television year was dominated by the now inescapable reality shows, many of which have been already discussed in these pages (2/17). And since I can’t imagine anyone doubts the low standards of such shows as Mr. Personality, I will pass over them in silence.

One bright spot, however, in this sea of reality-dreck was Manor House, which aired on PBS last month. Another in a series of what one might call the historical reality shows favored by PBS, participants in Manor House agreed to assume the roles of an Edwardian family and their servants in an English mansion, located near the border of Scotland. Viewing the network reality shows, one is shocked by how quickly someone could agree to eat roaches, here one is shocked by how quickly someone could think of himself as a butler. (I prefer the PBS shocks.)

The allure of these shows lies in the desire to peer into the pastseeing what life was like for a cook, a scullery maid, a footmanas well as learning about the minutiae that took up the time of the upper classes in the early part of the century. (The mistress of Manor House, in preparation for a large dinner party, spent almost an entire day agonizing over the etiquette of seating arrangements.) Just as interesting were the physical and psychological responses of the participants, which mimicked to an uncanny degree those of their forebears. When two scullery maids left in quick succession, after finding themselves unable to complete their backbreaking tasks, a knowing voice-over told us that losing scullery maids was common in a large English country house. When the unmarried sister living upstairs grew depressed by her lack of social status, we were informed that this, too, was common for women of her position in Edwardian England. The moral of the story is: for all of your troubles, be happy you’re not a scullery maid or, worse, a hall boy. (He slept in the hall.)

The best show on television this year was HBO’s Six Feet Under, which traces the lives, loves and losses of the Fisher family, owners and operators of a Los Angeles funeral home. While some viewers may be put off by the subject materialperhaps imagining a show that focuses exclusively on casket design, flower sprays, embalming fluids and headstone selection questionsmissing the show would be a great loss. For the series is one of the more literate and intelligent shows on television, offering a remarkably realistic look at family dynamics circa 2003.

This season has been a bleak one for the Fisher family and their circle. During the first show of the season, Nate, one of the Fisher sons, married Lisa, the somewhat controlling mother of his child. As the season progressed, however, Nate’s former nutcase girlfriend, Brenda, slowly re-entered his life. David, the gay, straight-arrow son, faced difficulties with his chip-on-the-shoulder ex-cop boyfriend. Ruth, the materfamilias, was still searching for love and companionship after the death of her husband. Finally, her daughter, Clare, has entered art school and the dating pool as well, both with somewhat mixed results.

What prevents Six Feet Under from feeling like a soap opera is not simply the clever writing, but superlative acting by the regular castand the often surprising guest stars. Near the beginning of the season, for example, Ruth’s hippy-dippy sister, played by Patricia Clarkson (an Academy Award nominee this year for Far From Heaven), asks Ruth to pick up a prescription for her. Arriving at her sister’s house, Ruth is surprised to be greeted by Bettina, played by Kathy Bates (another recent Academy Award nominee). Bettina informs Ruth that her sister is addicted to the drug Vicodin, and that she is helping her kick the nasty habit.

At one point during the episode, Bettina and Ruth, wonderfully played by Frances Conroy, tie Ruth’s drugged-out sister to her bed to prevent her from getting hold of any Vicodin. Here were three of the best actresses in the country in a beautifully played little scene. Frances Conroy looked convincingly worried; Patricia Clarkson screamed, Let me go! while Kathy Bates was munching on a sandwich in the corner, looking thoroughly nonplussed. At the end of the episode, Ruth and Bettina wander into the backyard. As the sister’s whining is heard from the house, Bettina swings placidly in a hammock. How can you be so calm? asks Ruth. I took a Vicodin, says Bettina.

The only lacuna in Six Feet Under is that for all the emphasis on death and funerals, there is almost no reflection on religious (or even spiritual topics), which would seem natural in such a line of work. While there have been numerous fantasies of the afterlife, overtly religious topics are largely avoidedeven in a family where at least two members (the mother and her gay son) are religious. In a series where nothing seems to be taboo, religion is avoided. Religionthat is, real religion, not wacko fundamentalist murderers, priest-pedophiles, small-minded evangelical parents, screaming nuns or stupid Catholicsremains the last great taboo of television.

But at least Six Feet Under is unflinching about showing the reality of death. The customers of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home grieve for their parents, their friends and their lovers in the funeral home’s well-appointed parlors. Nate weeps after a painful meeting with a widower. The mortuary assistant, Rico, is frequently shown preparing bodies for funerals, and doing so lovingly. It is an irony that well-crafted fictional shows like Six Feet Under often provide more reality than reality shows. (After all, do you know any people who act like the contestants on The Bachelorette?) It is an even sadder irony that one hour of Six Feet Under gives a clearer sense of what it means to mourn death than most of the coverage of the war in Iraq, where many thousands died.

Next year we hope to see more shows like Six Feet Under, fewer reality shows, and, please God, no war.

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