Bart Whiteman: A Fox In The TV Hen House

Sunday, May 29, 2005 - by Bart Whiteman
Bart Whiteman
Bart Whiteman

I hate to admit this. I really hate to admit this. I really, really hate to admit this. My three favorite television shows are all on Fox. It’s not the admission of addiction that is troubling. It is giving this kind of credit to Fox.

Once upon a time – at the time of Creation, I think – there were only three major networks. It seemed that this would be the status quo for all time. It seemed that it was somehow meant to be and written in stone: “Thou shalt have only three major networks.”

Was there any reason to question this? The sun rose in the east and set in the west. Winter preceded spring, which preceded summer. There would only be three major networks. And along came Fox and changed things for all time. And maybe the sun will come up in the west one day.

What’s bad about this is that Fox News is the only major television news department which makes no bones about having an obvious bias and then tries to dispel this bias with an inherently bogus motto: “We report, you decide.” Decisions have been already made.

So, I guess for me it’s love the goose, hate the gander.

What’s worse is that all three of my favorite shows – all on Fox – had their season finales this past week. Talk about catapulting someone into withdrawal...

First, there is 24 on Mondays. This series has become Keifer Sutherland’s personal gold mine, since he is both the star and the producer. He plays Jack Bauer, an unusually effective and sometimes roguishly independent agent for the CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit). The success of this show relies on several factors. One, it re-introduces two old-fashioned principles of drama that work like a charm – action and suspense. You might as well call it “The Perils Of Jack” because its predecessor, the erstwhile Pauline, never had it so bad. The action of each of now four seasons encompasses one twenty-four period in the life of Jack and our country – hence the title – and each hour-long episode is revealed in real time. With days like these, who needs a week. We’ve only seen Jack for four complete and exhausting days, and we have come to share his utter world-weariness.

Jack and the many other people working with him wriggle out of one dilemma after another of such complexity and regularity that it makes being tied to the railroad tracks in front of a speeding train seem like a mere boy scout merit badge exercise. In one mind-eroding moment with “no winning choice,” Jack has to order a surgical team at gun-point away from saving the life of his girl friend’s ex-husband, who just happened to take a bullet meant for Jack, in order to save the life of a Chinese computer jock who might possess the information needed to prevent an American city being hit by a nuclear missile. The ex-husband dies. The girl friend is not happy. Why?

At times, there are moments of “you’ve got to be kidding,” but these are usually blown away by the next “off to the races” moment. The show taps right into our current concern about terrorists threatening another strike against the American homeland, but it also paves some fresh territory like having a Black president, who in the fourth year of the series became a former president called back into national service by the sitting vice-president because the actual president has been incapacitated by the shooting down of Air Force One by a stolen stealth bomber. Shrewdly, the seeds have been planted for the upcoming fifth year of the series (starting January 2006) that the new enemy will be Chinese, something our Islamic obsessed national leadership might want to take note of.

You also get the feeling that about half of the working actors in Hollywood have appeared on the show and have added to its massive body count. Life is cheap in the pursuit of making us terror-free.

One very odd development over all four seasons is that it seems that all the terrorists in the world seem to be focused on doing their evil in Los Angeles, a city that so far has been spared from real terrorism other than the occasional domestic riot and earth tremor. But this coincidence certainly makes it easier to shoot the series.

Two other quirks of the show are that no one seems to engage in that thing called sleep any more, and half the dialogue is delivered over cell phone.

Second, there is American Idol on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I can already hear a few jeers out there, but if you want to see what a success looks like, watch this show. The country is now divided not between conservatives and liberals, but between the supporters of Carrie and the supporters of Bo, the two finalists this year. Two years ago, the country was divided between the supporters of Reuben and the supporters of Clay. And each year the numbers keep growing. These singers are getting more votes that any politicians, including the presidential candidates, could hope to muster.

Do you admit to your friends that you voted?

American Idol is the ultimate American Dream machine. It takes people auditioning as unknowns among thousands in hotel suites around the country, and within a few months the chosen few are in Hollywood and have become household names across the same country. Again, it is not really a new idea. It is Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour put into hyper space. At a time when the chrome on the American Dream has been tarnished, it restores some of its luster.

The show is also about balance. The judges are a perfect example. Randy is everyone’s favorite uncle. Paula is everyone’s favorite aunt. And Simon is everyone’s wicked step-father. But it is Simon and his toughness and sometimes painful honesty that makes the show work. Without him, it would dissolve into ten pounds of glitzy mush. The singers all know he is the guy they have to get by, like it our not. He also has an infuriating habit of being right. He called for Carrie to win, when a lot of crystal ball gazers were saying Bo.

But really the show is about the singers and their demonstration how quickly a good one can be very compelling and also how quickly a bad one can be very irritating. One thing they are demonstrating, however, is that we may be raising a whole generation of strong American singers who are not being accompanied by great American songwriters. The latter seemed to have died off, since so much of what you hear on the show is older material. At the same time, so much of what is now top-40 material is not coverable. Maybe Fox needs to sponsor a parallel show for songwriters.

Third is the medical drama series called House, which comes on right after American Idol – an embarrassment of riches. It features the actor Hugh Laurie in the role of a curmudgeonly, irascible, cynical, and extremely talented doctor in a New Jersey Hospital who solves one difficult medical case after another with the help of three residents. They are the targets of his constant scorn, derision, general mistreatment, and encyclopedic knowledge of the wide range and variety of human malady. In other words, he is the kind of guy you would hate to love, but that we need more of in key places. In other words, it borders on pure fantasy.

House also sports the most pronounced TV character limp since Chester in Gunsmoke.

House ended the season having to effect a cure of a mysterious disease inhabiting the husband of his former lover, played by Sela Ward, whom he has never quite gotten over. This is truly the horns of a personal-professional dilemma. Laurie has a face which just reads “tortured soul.” He also is winning all sorts of polls as the sexiest doctor on television.

In a sequence of episodes that made me want to stand up an cheer, House takes on the marauding new Chairman of the Board of the hospital who wants to run things “like a business.” Healing people is secondary. Ho, ho, ho. The Chairman is a self-made billionaire bully who basically tries to use his imposing size and money to get his way all the time. He offers the rest of the Board a “gift” of $100 million to get rid of House, whom he regards as a liability, not an asset, on his balance sheet. Finally, the Board decides to look this gift horse in the mouth and choose House over all the that gorgeous money. Another pure fantasy.

House is a man after my own heart. Keep it up, doc.

At a distant fourth pace in my mind, you’ll find the ABC series Lost. At times, this series seemed to take its own title too literally. Parts of it are hard to figure out. At mid-season it meandered all over the place and ran a puzzling series of re-runs. It seemed that the writers of the show were making it up as they went along and were struggling for a plot. Who knows where it is headed.

The premise is that a group of 40+ survivors of an airplane crash end up on an uncharted island in the South Pacific somewhere between Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles. We watch their efforts to cope with their new environment and each other. It’s kind of a reverse of the novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, where the writer explores the lives of five people who fell to their death when a bridge in Peru collapses. Both Lost and Bridge are composed of back stories that examine the twists of fate that led the people involved to their calamity.

Lost is also filled with many mysteries, the least of which is how an island like this could exist in today’s satellite encircled world. Either Captain Cook or Marlon Brando had to have been here before. Also, whereas everyone 24 has a cell phone, no one in Lost has one. The island is also inhabited by polar bears (and no ice), wild boars, and some invisible Jurassic Park-like monster, not too mention a crazed French lady marooned there for sixteen years (Ben Gunn’s sister I suppose) and a gang of child-kidnapping modern pirates. The final image of the finale was several of the key characters staring down the dynamite-opened hatch of a metallic cross between a buried flying saucer and a bomb shelter into a bottomless abyss with a seriously short ladder to aid any descent or ascent, depending on your point of view.

What does this all mean?

We’ll find out next season. The appeal of Lost, besides all the mystery, is that the cast is filled with all sorts of people in dire need of redemption. We have a doctor who turned in his own father for malpractice. We have a heroin-addict rocker who is trying to be the surrogate father for the baby born on the island. We have the father trying to build a relationship with the son he hasn’t seen for nine years. We have the very over-weight millionaire lottery winner who is convinced that everything he touches is doomed and that he probably caused the plane crash in the first place. We have the gun-savvy, bank-robbing babe who started the plane ride in hand-cuffs and has been having trouble deciding her spiritual kinship between the only other admitted murderer among the survivors or the above “clean” but agonizing doctor.

It’s a group of people with something for everyone. However, many things just don’t make sense. The most mysterious character, Locke, played by Terry O’Quinn, could not walk back in the real world and had to be carried on to the plane to his seat. On the island, he does more walking and exploring than anyone. How’s that? If this whole thing turns out to be a collective dream and these people are not the survivors but the ones who actually died during the crash, I will throw a brick at my TV.

It will be a rough summer, but there are some things to look forward to.

Bart Whiteman

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