Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

I Am Become TV, the Destroyer of Worlds

That's not to say the "tee-vee" can't teach you anything.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
-J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb

One show that always makes me want to rescind my membership in the human race is Wheel of Fortune. What makes me cringe is not the desperate look in Pat Sajak's eyes nor Vanna White's reanimated corpse, revealing the letters in a way designed to keep her toothpick-like appendages from snapping. What gets me is the unfettered glimpse at the human mind struggling to assemble _ _ F - R _ _ D into the phrase OFF-ROAD. "Is it OWF-ROOD? BOF-ROAD? OAF-READ?"

I have a theory that game-show hosts have to strangle a puppy every now and again simply to reassert their place in the food chain. You can see this glimmer of hate in Alex Trebek's eye during the "getting to know you" segment of Jeopardy!

"So, Rick, I hear you do some sort of crafts with old computer monitors."

"Well, yes, Alex, what I do is I hollow them out and then create dioramas based on the novels of Harry Turtledove."

"That sure is something. Our second contestant is Cindy from Weehawken. It says here, Cindy, that you once met Dom DeLuise on a Carnival Cruise."

These programs suck, but it would be pure folly to place the blame on the shoulders of the hosts. It's one thing for Oprah to do a show about women who have gotten their heads caught in ATM machines or to plug next week's interview with Julia Roberts' uterus. But it's another thing entirely to watch homunculi buy vowels they don't need or fuck up questions about "THINGS THAT END IN -ING." Game-show hosts are dangerous creatures. Boredom has made them so. Personally, I can't imagine any kind of reality where Alex Trebek does not feast on a live human heart before every show, and where Pat Sajak cannot face the cameras until he's held one of his fists above the burner of a stove-Taxi Driver-style-before taping a hunting knife to his ankle.

Personally, I can't imagine any kind of reality where Alex Trebek does not feast on a live human heart before every show, and where Pat Sajak cannot face the cameras until he's held one of his fists above the burner of a stove-Taxi Driver-style-before taping a hunting knife to his ankle.

Imagine that you're Alex Trebek or Pat Sajak for a moment. You're not merely a living conduit between the TV and the audience; you are the TV. It's the same for Mary Hart or for Regis Philbin and his Kathy Lee upgrade. People like them don't even need a TiVo to be plugged into TV World. And TV World used to be a wonderful place, populated by Gilligan, Colonel Robert Hogan and Mr. Hooper. Didn't it?

That's how I remember it-or choose to remember it, since this description's hardly true at all. While Gilligan's antics were keeping the castaways on the island, Bob "Hogan" Crane was filming sexy movies with Willem Dafoe. And Mr. Hooper is dead. They've since been replaced by nimrods on reality shows and overweight men married to attractive wives, waiting for the audience to laugh in the right places. There was a time when the TV felt like a window into a fantastic world where you could escape, forgetting bits of your life one program at a time. It is this precise brand of pop nostalgia that inspired the cable network named, predictably, TV Land.

The characters that populate TV World nowadays are less than inspiring. You've got screaming idiots on the twenty-four-hour news channels who are looking out for you while shovelling horseshit down your throat. Then there are the super nannies brought in to correct the mistakes of parents more interested in being on TV than in raising their children; rock stars who pretend to be punk because it's marketable; vile heiresses making fun of poor people; cartoon cretins spouting pop-culture references; failed comedians watching brain donors scarf down unattractive animal parts; an entire town of people remodelled to fit the whim of one celebrity designer; and all manner of vampires, demons, paranormal detectives and Joan Rivers offspring. TV World kinda sucks.

Before I could even sit down to write this column, I had to drive my car under a moving semi-trailer, convince my parents that I had won a million dollars, complete the phrase OFF-ROAD, vote someone off my island and eat sheep testicles.

That's not to say the "tee-vee" can't teach you anything. Take, for instance, this cocaine ring in Queens: the drug dealers took notes from HBO's The Wire in order to evade police capture. In its first season, The Wire featured a group of police investigators in Baltimore working on a case about some badass drug dealers. What the real-life drug dealers learned was that one should always conduct one's business on a disposable cell phone to make phone tracing more difficult-a far cry from Mr. Wizard's long-ago lessons.

I may not have learned how to spell from television (try watching Wheel of Fortune from the perspective of an advanced alien race tuned into the radio waves we've been broadcasting into space-BOF-ROOD?), but here's what I have gleaned from a lifetime of watching TV: There is no problem that cannot be solved within thirty minutes. Scientists and cops are incredibly attractive, unless they're crooked or Dennis Franz. Celebrities really enjoy giving each other awards. I can let myself go completely to pot and then receive a full make-over complete with plastic surgery. You can hear better music in a car commercial than on any one of four different music channels. Sporting events are little more than advertising delivery devices. Alex Trebek has tasted human flesh.

In recent years, with the advent of reality TV, we've been able to see what it would be like if real people got to be on the airwaves. As it turns out, real life requires upwards of ten scriptwriters, physical challenges and quite often gross manipulation of your family's emotions. Before I could even sit down to write this column, I had to drive my car under a moving semi-trailer, convince my parents that I had won a million dollars, complete the phrase OFF-ROAD, vote someone off my island and eat sheep testicles. The population of TV World has changed quite a bit. It's been gentrified by boobs, jackasses, dim-wits, maroons and nimrods who are pushing out half-breeds like Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak. It makes me cower in fear of what the future might hold. Maybe, just maybe, someday television will accurately reflect our reality. And that, my friends, will be terrifying.

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.