In a recent episode of the now defunct Frasier, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was asked to pay $10,000 for a dating service. When he balked at the fee, the proprietor of the establishment (Laura Linney) asked him how much he’d spent on bad dates in the last year or so. After mulling it over for a moment and realizing that he’d spent as much as or more than $10,000 on dates, Frasier offered to write a cheque. For me, this was an odd TV moment: I found myself uncertain of what I was being sold.
From commercial breaks to the casual appearance of an iPod in a CBS sitcom to MTV rolling out artists (with albums about to drop!), it’s no secret that television exists to sell us something. It also exists to entertain, but TV doesn’t pay for itself. TV is a lot like that mouse you’re not supposed to give a cookie to, except that the audience is the mouse and the cookies ain’t free.
Nowadays everyone on TV is your friend: they’re in your home every week sharing their madcap lives with you, begging for your affection. Sitcoms in particular want to pass off as entertainment a product so mind-numbingly empty that you’ll buy it without having to think about it. If you’re a semi-regular TV viewer, then it’s fair to say that you have a weak spot for at least one sitcom. I always found Frasier enjoyable, but would rather have seen a spinoff about Cliff (John Ratzenberger), as he was probably the character in the Cheers ensemble with the most prominent sociopathic tendencies. A sitcom about Cliff would hardly be uplifting or happy-go-lucky. It would be about a trivia-mad mailman who lives with his similarly obsessed mother.
Sitcoms are often little more than allegories in which an everywoman or -man character suffers through life’s little indignities and triumphs in pursuit of happiness. Frasier is the cranky everyman: an erudite Becker, an Archie Bunker with a love of the arts, a John Larroquette for the psychological set (supplanting Pynchon references with obscure psychological terms for sympathetic pregnancy). Sitcoms, by nature, want to do little more than entertain. Hence the laugh track, which keeps viewers chuckling along even while they’re doing crosswords or preparing dinner or casually chatting with their buddy on the couch. And just like with your real-life buddy, you want to hear the new music your onscreen friends have discovered, use the kind of laptop they use and drink the same soda they drink. You’re friends because you can relate to one another.
So when I saw Frasier reach into his coat pocket to write out a cheque for $10,000 for a dating service, my suspension of disbelief was lost. I was no longer interested in buying into him. He stepped outside the boundary of my circle of friends. It’s not his fault and it’s not my fault. I’m just not in the same demographic as him. There might very well be something that I’ve spent $10,000 on in the last year or so (food maybe), but I certainly don’t have that kind of money lying around. Oh, I could write a cheque for $10,000 with absolutely no problem, but that cheque wouldn’t even bounce-- it would just strike the earth with a dull wet thud.
I experienced a twinge of insecurity, as if I were being measured against Frasier. It’s the same as when my mother, as a child, felt that her family wasn’t as good a family as the Cleavers because, essentially, they weren’t middle class. The Cleavers solved their problems by sitting down and having a chat, and then everyone would drink a glass of milk and say, “Gee whiz, I’m sorry.” At my mom’s house, though, grandma cooked with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and grandpa rattled around the country building airplanes and getting drunk and “gee whiz” didn’t solve anything. So she could never relate to Wally and the Beaver. But nowadays there are a variety of half-hour programs, which may or may not fit into the sitcom mould, that seek to appeal to anyone with a pulse. All you have to do to find them is turn the proverbial dial, which I did, landing me on an episode of The Real World San Diego.
The Real World, as opposed to the real world, is a program where seven strangers are thrown into one house and then forced to be “real.” In the first few seasons, before the advent of the term “reality show,” The Real World managed to draw in a rather diverse group of young people, such as Pedro (a young man with HIV), Judd (an aspiring cartoonist), Puck (kicked off for being too real), Kat (who was an aspiring Olympic something-or-other) and Dave Eggers. Well, actually he was only an applicant. Each person had sympathetic perspectives, but after fourteen relentless seasons of young people being “real” in Boston, New Orleans, Paris and Vancouver, The Real World has become a mirror in which we can see our species’ very lowest qualities, the ones best overlooked, at constant play. The current crop of Mensa applicants in The Real World San Diego are people with too much dignity to appear on Fear Factor, but without the necessary problem-solving skills to appear on Road Rules. The episode that I happened to see was the one where everyone was inside an SUV, drunk and yelling at each other for reasons they soon forgot. Later on they went to a party and did some shots, and no one could understand why that one girl was being such a bitch. And I sat there thinking, “My god, I’ve been in a drunken argument in the back of a car.” And I felt sad.
I fall closer in age to the cast of The Real World than to the cast of Frasier. But I’m just barely too old to appear on The Real World, except perhaps as some kind of weird older friend who dates one of the cast members, but whom everyone else fervently dislikes. All up in their Kool-Aid, as it were. And I would have very little place on Frasier either--the only time I ever called a radio station was when I needed to hear a song on the radio that I already had on tape, vinyl and CD. But I thought the other listeners might want to hear it too.
So where is that show that sees me--or someone like me--as its potential customer? It’s out there somewhere and with a little bit of time and utter lack of effort (such is the nature of the TV viewer), I’m sure I can find it.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.