TV and the Academy|
They treat each other with disdain, but professor Elaine Showalter
argues that each can learn from the other
Someone once prayed "God give me strength to lead a double life," and I know exactly what he meant. In 1996, from January to December, I was a little bit Princeton and a little bit NBC. By day I taught 19th- and 20th-century novels in the English department. By night I reviewed television for People magazine, at the invitation of its then editor, Landon Y. Jones, Jr. '66. Thanks to modern communications, I was able to write my columns and reviews from home and send them via FedEx, fax, e-mail, and telephone, so the gap between McCosh Hall and the Time and Life Building, in New York City, was more conceptual than physical. I watched 10 to 20 hours of videos in weekend marathons, got to see a lot of brilliant television I would otherwise have missed, and even attended the MTV Video Awards. I also discovered that anyone in the television industry would talk to me when I identified myself as a critic from People. It was a heady experience.
Keeping my academic and journalistic lives separate, however, turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. Although People claims 35 million readers, none of them seem to live in Princeton. During the year I wrote its TUBE and Picks & Pans columns, only a handful of Princeton residents, mainly my closest friends, ever mentioned it. From time to time, a professor would sidle up to me and whisper conspiratorially that he had just been to the barber or the dentist, and had discovered my secret, as if I were writing about UFOs for the National Enquirer. One of my husband's colleagues at Rutgers, where he teaches, asked if he knew that the TV critic in People had the same name as his wife. When colleagues at other universities discovered that I was moonlighting as a mass-market TV critic, they expressed sympathy, as though a stern judge had sentenced me to watch television for a year. A professor at Harvard gave thanks that she had not been asked to be the People TV critic, since she dislikes television so much.
For their part, my editors and researchers at People were totally uninterested in my life and work as an English professor. They were friendly, helpful, generous in letting me slip literary allusions and quotations into my columns, willing to let through the occasional crack about Yale; but they were certainly not about to scare readers away by publicizing my professional identity. After I criticized Beverly Hills 90210 for its ludicrous portrait of "California University," a reader wrote in to complain that I obviously had little first-hand knowledge about college students.
But however convenient and amusing it was for me, this gulf between the world of the university and the world of the mass media is costly and destructive for both parties. Academia on the one side, TV land on the other, operate from mutual ignorance and contempt. And it's worse in the United States than in Europe. Fifteen years ago, the British critic Clive James noted that "nowadays it is much less common for educated people to scorn television. Even some of the Cambridge dons now have television sets standing bare-faced in the living room instead of hidden behind the antimacassar. General statements about the culturally deleterious effect of television are nowadays less likely to go unchallenged."
James should try checking out the Ivy League. Even in 1997, disdain for television is a badge of honor among many leading American intellectuals. And this disdain is largely based on ignorance. I was shocked a decade ago when the cultural critic Susan Sontag told me that she did not own a television set; but even last year, after denouncing the trashy writing on American television for a BBC panel discussion, a distinguished professor at Columbia admitted that he had never seen The Simpsons, Seinfeld, ER, or NYPD Blue. When the conversation turns to television, academic snobbery and high-cultural one-upmanship still reign. "I'll look at the opera," says one. "I tune in for the weekly cable German news," brags another. Even my academic colleagues who specialize in studying modern media, and make us watch old videos of Pee-Wee's Playhouse at brunch, don't watch prime-time, or won't admit they watch it. Glib academic pronouncements about the cultural wasteland of television might change if intellectuals watched it more or had more sense of its internal workings and goals.
American intellectuals do retain an anachronistic respect for Masterpiece Theatre and other PBS British imports, although in England, viewers, TV writers, and critics sadly concur that in originality, quality, and daring, American prime-time TV has far surpassed anything the British have been able to do in years. As Stuart Jeffries, the television critic for the London Guardian, observes, "Many Britons are afraid of the present and want to wallow in a dimly remembered, somehow kinder past. Perhaps the Americans' success has something to do with the self-confidence expressed in American sitcoms. It's a self-confidence that doesn't need to express itself by reducing other races or ways of life to unfunny, hateful stereotypes." Ironically, American television is now very much like American film in the 1960s--patronized by American intellectuals obsessed with European culture, but recognized abroad as the avant-garde.
Yet prime-time television is just as mocking and disdainful of intellectuals. In the midst of a major crisis for the humanities and universities in general, and although American television is largely written, produced, and acted by well educated humanists, the stereotype of college professors on television still includes arrogance, pomposity, or downright bumbling idiocy. The most realistic university professor on prime-time right now is John Lithgow as physics professor Dick Solomon on Third Rock from the Sun, and he plays an alien. Much more typical is Malcolm McDowell as Professor Pynchon, the obnoxious humanities scholar on Pearl, a CBS comedy (now off the air) about a working-class woman who goes back to college at elite Swindon University in New Jersey, a thinly disguised version of Princeton. Professor Pynchon's lectures are a mix of self-importance, sophomoric banality, and insult; he has a skeleton next to his podium, as if he were teaching humanities to Hamlet in Wittenberg. He doesn't seem to have an office, but just sits next to the skeleton between lectures. (Lithgow's character, however, has a handsome office he shares, oddly, with an anthropologist. They have their own secretary, too.)
Several of the top-rated stars in current or recent shows are Princeton graduates, including David Duchovny '82 in The X-Files, Brooke Shields '87 in Suddenly Susan, and Dean Cain '88 as Superman in Lois & Clark. But despite this evidence that Princeton graduates are sexy, friendly, funny, and delightful people, the image of Princeton itself on prime-time television is one of privilege, phoniness, and hauteur. TV teenagers with intellectual ambitions and progressive views apply to Yale, although they rarely attend. TV teenagers who apply to or attend Princeton tend to be social-climbing, money-grubbing Young Conservatives, clones of Michael J. Fox's character on Ronald Reagan's favorite show, Family Ties, who went to Princeton-like Leland University. Whether it's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or a random sitcom featuring an unlikely "Princeton University recruiter," television emphasizes Princeton's difficulty and snobbery. (For more on TV's portrayal of Princeton, see the sidebar starting on page 13.)
My first serious adult involvement with television began with thirtysomething, among whose writers was Princeton English major Winnie Holzman '76. Hope Steadman on thirtysomething was supposed to have been a Princeton graduate who majored in women's studies. Much as I loved the show, I could never forgive its writers for the episode in which Hope has a dream about her Princeton women's studies seminar, directed by a dreadful old bat of a professor in a floppy-bow blouse who tells her that she will betray her sex if she marries.
But thirtysomething eventually went off the air, and I was eagerly looking forward to My So-Called Life, created and written by Holzman. MSCL was one of the rare TV dramas that created characters so three-dimensional that they became part of viewers' lives, even their dreams. "It's like a parallel world that opens up every Thursday," wrote one fan. Ostensibly about the 15-year old Angela Chase, played by the remarkable young actress Claire Danes, the program actually dramatized the continuities and similarities between the generations. As Holzman remarked, "The parents are going through a midlife crisis while their daughter is going through the crisis of identity which is adolescence. They have more in common than they realize." Moreover, having adapted themes from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce in her plots for thirtysomething, Holzman designed My So-Called Life as a homage to Thornton Wilder *26's Our Town, and based each episode on a literary text, from The Odyssey to the poetry of Delmore Schwartz. Holzman herself played a guidance counselor, a role much appreciated by the show's young fans.
Watching MSCL was a new experience for me because of the availability of the Internet with its chat rooms, homepages, and interactive interviews. The often isolating experience of watching TV became bonding, communal, and creative. Every week there were online discussions about the symbolism and the psychological fine points of each episode. But the show was canceled after 19 weeks, despite the efforts of passionate fans, including myself, who posted more than 5,000 messages of protest on ABC's computer bulletin boards.With a 6.9 Neilsen rating and a mere 11 million viewers, My So-Called Life, in a Thursday-night slot against NBC's powerhouse line-up, could not generate enough audience to stay on the air.
THE BIG BUSINESS OF MTV
At the same time, I had a more personal engagement with television as my 22-year-old son, Michael, and his skit-comedy group, The State, began a three-year contract with MTV, writing and performing on a weekly show that often satirized the conventions and ethics of prime-time. Between The State, my job at People, and invitations from former students making it big in the media, I saw as many live shoots as I could manage at various studios around New York, and also spent time at MTV's Manhattan offices, which look like a 15-year-old's decorating dream: the walls are lined with psychedelic filing cabinets, and the main reception desk is made of huge sculpted aluminum bird claws. Like a Gen-X Citizen Kane, one executive producer has decorated his office with a world-class collection of snowball paperweights.
But MTV is big business, and the atmosphere is brisk and efficient. No slackers here; beneath the T-shirts, dreadlocks, nose-rings, and spandex, I found professionals as tough as any in the television world, and MTV's apparent spontaneity and idealism coexists with intense planning and close scrutiny of the ratings. While MTV continues to promote its rebellious, "authority sucks" image, it is getting closer to prime-time in production values, promotional savvy, and real-world clout. The MTV news world is a strange mirror-image of the American scene. A major news flash will deal with a tour announcement or a drug overdose. There's never a weather report; at the MTV Beach House in Malibu, the site of much of the summer programming, the sun is always shining. Even in the age of the sound-bite, MTV's house style of fast cutting, musical backgrounds, and in-your-face graphics is often startling. MTV's alternative news isn't nearly as easy to pull off as it tries to appear. As Dolly Parton says about her rhinestone get-up, "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap."
But MTV has been the cutting edge for much American innovation in the use of the TV medium. Among other things, MTV cultivates a close relationship with its audience, trying to involve as many viewers as possible in the network process, and to give them the feeling that MTV is their family and community, their parallel universe. "We have a special relationship with our audience," says producer Dave Sirulnick. "They see it as their channel."
MTV maintains an active presence online. Its live-audience shows aim for maximum participation. Its MTV Unfiltered series allows viewers to film their personal stories on state-of-the-art camcorders supplied by MTV. I went to a production meeting of the series around a glass-topped conference table filled with fluorescent plastic sculptures of the MTV logo and aliens, animals, nudes, slogans, and Coke cans, where we sat in brightly colored swivel chairs with words woven into their upholstery: Bottom, Top, Sweetie, Butt-head, Loser, Weasel, Darling, Slacker, Slut, Stud. The eight young story editors and assistant producers had culled about 300 of the best proposals for discussion. Most of the proposals fell into predictable categories that staffers dismiss with a wisecrack: pro-moshing, pro-rave, pro-skinheads; diseases of the week; weird sports; nothing to do in my boring town; no tolerance for self-expression: "I went to school with my face made-up like Kiss and they wouldn't let me in."
At the end, only a handful of the proposals went on to stage two. Among MTV's most memorable excursions in reality television has been its Real World series, which puts eight young strangers together in a fabulous house in an exciting city and films them 24 hours a day. The series peaked with a piece, set in San Francisco, that grouped a charming and courageous young Hispanic man with AIDS, Pedro Zamora, with an articulate, diverse set of housemates. Zamora died just before the documentary aired, and was eulogized by President Clinton.
But the 1990s, according to Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, are mainly the golden age of TV drama. McGrath has described American TV drama as a "brand-new genre . . . the prime-time novel." In his view, television is now a more writerly medium than film or magazines, and TV drama is continuing "the tradition of classic American realism . . . the painstaking, almost literal examination of middle and working class lives in the conviction that truth resides less in ideas than in details closely observed. More than many novels, TV tells us how we live now."
I think McGrath is right on the money, and not just because of brilliantly written dramatic series like NYPD, EZ Streets, or John Sacret Young '69's China Beach. Long-running TV series allow writers and actors the chance to let characters develop and change in something like real time, and today's television writers are eager to make use of these opportunities. Although prime-time TV is sometimes startlingly literary, I don't think that has to be its raison d'Étre. Moesha, a popular sitcom/drama series that deals with a middle-class black family in Los Angeles, takes its inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston's stories about black American culture in the 1930s. Teenager Moesha, played by the singer Brandy, is an aspiring novelist who calls Hurston "my favorite writer for life!" The shows cocreators, veteran TV writers Sara Finney and Vida Spears, wanted to show young African Americans on television admiring African-American writers. "I wanted Moesha to be a teenage girl who reads a lot," says Finney, "and I've always loved Hurston. Roxy Roker gave me her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was writing for The Jeffersons, and Moesha, like Hurston's heroine Janey, does things her own way." In an episode aired last fall, Moesha met a survivor of the Harlem Renaissance who had known Hurston and Langston Hughes.
A great TV series like the medical drama ER has many of the characteristics of contemporary literature: intertextuality, self-reflectiveness, ironic allusion. Professor Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher who chairs the Council of the Humanities, has taught and written about the textual and aesthetic ambiguities of prime-time. In his essay "Serious Watching," he argues that "the television audience is highly literate (more literate about its medium than many high-culture audiences are about theirs) and makes essential use of its literacy in its appreciation of individual episodes or whole series. Its enjoyment, therefore, is both active and comparative." ER manages to create characters who surprise us, whose personalities unfold week by week, as well as challenging scripts about the right to die, AIDS in the workplace, and bioethical dilemmas.
So what about the future of television? Coming out of my double life, I'm concerned about the poetics of TV criticism. Film criticism can point to James Agee and Pauline Kael, to David Denby and Janet Maslin--all well known writers who have helped shape the medium. But there are no giants of TV criticism. I suspect many educated Americans would be hard-pressed to name a contemporary television critic, although there are indeed some excellent practical critics, including John O'Connor, Walter Goodman, and Caryn James of The New York Times; Matt Roush of USA Today; Jeff Jarvis of TV Guide; Tom Shales of The Washington Post; and Dave Bianculli (who is now teaching at Princeton as a visiting lecturer) of NPR and the New York Daily News. There are also an increasing number of interesting academic studies of television that do not begin with the idea that TV is a shameful, disgusting, trashy wasteland. One recent example is Bonnie J. Dow's Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement Since 1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). And I have read some excellent books about the television business, including Bill Carter's The Late Shift (Hyperion, 1995), about the late-night battle between David Letterman and Jay Leno.
But to have a thoughtful and demanding TV audience, we need critics who can educate viewers about the aesthetics, ambitions, and achievements of what we watch, in addition to giving out stars, or assigning grades, as I did at People. I'm used to giving grades, but I would rather explain what's new, important, and experimental about a program.
New technologies will also affect the future of television. Despite the hype about high definition, a sharper picture won't change viewers' habits; the big difference will come from digitalization. Television sets will become computers, able to select programs for us out of a range of possibilities enormously expanded beyond today's 80 stations by satellites and fiberoptic cable. We will be able to schedule viewing to meet our own schedules, to transmit images to other television sets, and to receive programming from around the globe. In the 21st century, as media expert Nicholas Negroponte argues, prime-time will truly be our time. Its quality will have a lot to do with what alumni of places like Princeton contribute to production, criticism, and theory. You'd better start watching.
Elaine Showalter is the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities. Her most recent book is Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997). This article was adapted from a lecture she gave at last February's Alumni Day.
Princeton on the tube
Princeton and television have a love-hate relationship, judging from sightings and citings by alumni viewers. Based on an unscientific survey we conducted via Tigernet's Princeton Matters chat group, we compiled the following trivia about Princeton's place on the small screen. Thanks go to: Marilee Allan '75, Mark Badros '92, Jonathan Baker '87, Brian Baum '96, Francis Deane '98, Adrienne Della Penna '88, Robert Durkee '69, Petter Dutton '91, John Ellis '81, Theodore Fischer '92, Gregory Hurwitt '82, Steven James '74, Courtney Jones '98, John Keating '95, Jan Kubik '70, Patricia Lam '93, Brian McDonald '83, Clay McEldowney '69, Eric Rothman '92, and Henry Von Kohorn '66.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: The only professor to go prime-time, thanks to George Lucas, creator of the Indiana Jones movies. In the television spin-off, we learn Indy's father is a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, although the campus scenes bear no resemblance to Old Nassau.
Doogie Howser, M.D.: As the credits flash, viewers discover that Doogie graduated from Princeton at age 10, then went on to medical school. One viewer recalls Doogie as a graduate of the prestigious, if nonexistent, Princeton Medical School.
The Cosby Show: Oldest daughter Sondra graduates from Princeton while the family watches the action from a fictional Nassau Street hotel. In a later episode, Sondra marries an alumnus named Elvin.
I Spy: Robert Culp's spy, who masquerades as a touring tennis player, is a Princeton graduate.
Cheers: There's some dispute about whether Gary, the owner of Gary's Olde Towne Tavern (Cheers's rival bar), got his bachelor's degree or his MBA from Princeton (which, of course, lacks a business school). In one episode, Diane accuses Gary of being a dumb jock, and he informs her that he graduated from Princeton magna cum laude in American literature (another impossibility, since there is no department in that subject). Diane's retort: "Couldn't make it summa?"
In later episodes, Kelly's first boyfriend is a Princeton student or alumnus named Nash. His description: rich, preppy, snobby, and obnoxious.
The Simpsons: Fans may recall the classic rejoinder from Sideshow Bob's brother, Cecil, during an argument between the two. Sideshow Bob, a Yalie, mocks his sibling in dialogue something like this: "You've always wanted to be a clown! What about the buffoonery lessons? The four years at clown college?" Cecil's response: "I wish you would not refer to Princeton that way."
In another episode, Bob rows for Yale in a crew meet against Princeton held at a minimum-security prison.
thirtysomething: Hope advertises her alumna status by wearing a Princeton T-shirt as a nightgown.
Suddenly Susan: Real Princeton alumna Brooke Shields '87 shows her Tiger loyalties by wearing her alma mater's sweatshirt on her own show.
Dynasty: Stephen Carrington, heir to the fortune of patriarch Blake, frequently sports a Princeton sweatshirt (though usually the cheap kind, one viewer notes) at the family mansion. At one point in the television saga, Stephen was a closeted gay. During a visit from a friend he knew at college (who dad suspects also is gay), Blake and Stephen have an exchange similar to this:
Blake: "Did I meet your friend when I visited you at Princeton?"
Stephen: "Perhaps. I can't recall."
Blake: "He wasn't one of your roommates in Stafford Little Hall?"
Blake: "Maybe it was at the reception at the president's house. What was your president's name? Bauer? Bowen? Yes, that was his name, I think. Did we meet him at President Bowen's house?"
(Trivia time, folks--Did you know Little Hall is officially Stafford Little Hall? And can any other college president stake a claim to being cited in a prime-time soap?)
Frasier: Frasier, a Harvard man, and Niles, a Yalie, try to get into an exclusive Seattle social club by ingratiating themselves with a club officer who is a Princeton alumnus. They tell him Princeton is where they really wanted to go.
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Carlton is rejected from Princeton, but Will Smith's character is accepted. It seems that the son wants to follow in the footsteps of his alumnus dad. Or was that Uncle Phil who was an alumnus? Some viewers recall the alumnus uncle teaching the prospective student a secret club handshake.
My Life and Times: The narrator's grandson is rejected from Princeton, and is distraught because all his friends were accepted. The character also claims Princeton has the nation's best computer-imaging department.
Wings: Brian, the main character, goes to Princeton, but drops out; or he was admitted but never turned up on campus (memories vary).
The Wonder Years: Winnie Cooper, main-character Kevin's sometime girlfriend, considers Princeton along with other Ivies when she racks up high SAT scores.
Blossom: Blossom's boyfriend comes East to Princeton after much soul-searching--either to go to the school that is a better choice for him, or to attend college closer to Blossom.
Unhappily Ever After: The daughter on the series wants to attend Princeton because "a better class of people go there," but her father ruins her chances just moments before the admission interviewer signs an early admittance letter. (She recovers, remarking that she really wanted to go to Harvard, but her father winds up ruining that interview, too.).
Family Ties: Mallory accompanies Alex on his admission interview so she can visit her boyfriend, a Princeton undergraduate. The boyfriend gives Mallory the boot. Distraught and hysterical, she interrupts Alex's interview numerous times, thereby squashing Alex's chances.
Law and Order or 21 Jump Street: One of these is the origin of a plot with lines reminiscent of the Menendez brothers' case: an arrogant prep-school senior commits a nasty crime, and before his conviction, he boasts he has an acceptance letter from Princeton. (It isn't known if the writers were aware that Lyle Menendez matriculated with the Class of 1992 but left after his parents' murder.)
Coach: Assistant coach Luther Van Damme is made head coach at Aberdeen College for one episode. A picture of Pyne Hall alerts viewers that a scene is set at Aberdeen.
The Flintstones: In a football episode, Princestone defeats Shale.
All My Children: The gates between Henry and 1901 halls stand in for the fictional Pine Valley University.
Jeopardy: Guess what Ivy League university is cited more often than any other in the Colleges and Universities category?
Maria LoBiondo, a writer who lives in Princeton, likes to watch Thursday Night Mysteries (PBS) and Homicide (NBC).