Does Television Hate Itself?

Two shows I’ve been watching this spring/summer are FX’s The Comedians and Lifetime’s UnReal. The former was recently cancelled, the latter a critical and commercial success renewed for a second season. The former is a comic mockumentary, the latter a super-soapy melodrama. What do these shows have in common, besides their shared identity as basic cable programs? They are both set “behind the scenes” of a television show.

I can hazard a few guesses on why The Comedians failed to get an audience — perhaps we don’t believe that Billy Crystal is an ego-maniac actor, or maybe we just don’t want to, or maybe the show couldn’t decide whether to go full-Larry David or not. For those who watched the show,  which centered on a struggling FX show (“The Billy and Josh Show”) that lacked network support, the real-life cancellation seems like a meta-joke. In fact, part of me wonders if it is just the most genius publicity stunt, but it’s probably not. The season finale had very low ratings, after all….

Still, I’m almost surprised that FX pulled it, considering how The Comedians was free advertising for the network. Our first encounter with an FX executive — played by the infinitely talented Denis O’Hare — takes place in his office, with a poster for the FX show “You’re the Worst” hanging up in front of him. It’s a plug for the show but also a clever apology for such shameless self-promotion.

I’m sorry the show didn’t find an audience, because I felt it was getting better with each episode and really finding its voice.

UnReal, by contrast, is a highly addictive night-time soap opera about Rachel (Shiri Appleby), whose talent as a reality show producer may or may not stem from the fact that she may or may not have a conscience. Underrated actors Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko are there, alongside dreamy-sleazy Harry Potter alum Freddie Stroma playing the “Suitor” (the Bachelor) in a show called “Everlasting” (…Again, The Bachelor). Watching five minutes of the pilot with a friend, she turned to me with wide eyes and said, “This is intense.” You bet it is, unnamed friend! You don’t know the half of it!

If you aren’t watching it, you should be watching it. And not just because I say so. But because Emily Nussbaum says so.

When we get a fictionalized “behind-the-scenes” view of the television industry, it is never flattering. Never never never. Sometimes it is just somewhat icky, as in The Comedians, and sometimes it is morally bankrupt and criminal, as in UnReal. Still other times it makes you laugh with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach (see: The Comeback). But this self-critical, self-loathing streak television has when it talks about itself goes back at least as far as the 1957 episode of Playhouse 90 entitled “The Comedian.” Starring Mickey Rooney as a piece-of-work TV star, this script was written by Ernest Kinoy, a former writer for TV star Milton Berle. No one is saying that Rooney’s character is based on Berle, but then again, no one is not saying that either….

comedian

Similarly, one of the creators of UnReal worked on The Bachelor. Is this why we want television to prostrate itself, to reveal itself to us? Because we want the inside dirt. Everybody likes a good tell-all.

Still, I would argue that when Hollywood movies reveal the industry in fictionalized form, there is an element of love or begrudging respect. In the 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful, three Hollywood professionals are wounded by the same callous, control freak director, played by Kirk Douglas. They vow never to work with him again… and yet the magic and romance of making a good film will lure them back in. Even Sunset Boulevard, a kind of grotesque display of the declining studio and star system, understands the pull of movies. Norma Desmond, as “Grey Gardens” as she is (read previous post), will still get her close-up. And no movie treats Hollywood as cruelly as the film Network depicts television: Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet sure did have an axe to grind, no doubt.

Television does not have illusions of its own grandeur, and perhaps it has never had the luxury, living under the glamorous shadow of cinema. There is no romance, no magic, to working in television… at least, according to television. It is a petty medium and a petty industry, period. For years, television has owned its second-rate status and turned it into something of a shtick: it apes humility, even self-loathing, as a kind of pre-emptive strike against itself.

Will our contemporary Golden Age of Television — in which all the cinephiles openly prefer quality TV to whatever is playing at the local multiplex — change all of that? So far, not so much.

An interesting counter-example: The Dick Van Dyke Show, about Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), the head writer of a comedy show (based on Your Show of Shows/Caesar’s Hour). It premiered in 1961, the same year that FCC Chairman Newton Minow condemned the lion’s share of television programming as a “vast wasteland.” In this moment of quiz show scandals and the visible decline of TV’s first “Golden Age,” The Dick Van Dyke Show is a kind of nostalgia for television of the previous decade, and for an industry that was still vital and dynamic.

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