Monday, February 3, 2014

Cardboard Cops and Hero PIs

Mike Welch returns with some random observations on how Dragnet's Joe Friday fares against 'Magnum PI' on ratings for niceness, good work and sexiness; and what that says about their loyal TV fans. Remember Mike Welch? He's the debut memoirist who will, I'm betting, give Marcel Proust a run for his money.

Robert Knightly

There’s an old chicken-and-the-egg type argument about whether culture prefigures art or vice versa, but who cares how this stuff works, really. This is not a lesson in Literary Criticism, but an attempt by me to point out that it is not a mistake that Joe Friday has that crew cut and says “just the facts, ma’am” while Magnum PI has that bushy mustache and mugs at the camera and usually tongue-kisses the women he interrogates at some point in each episode. To me, these shows are as much artifacts of the times and places in which they were created as they are shows about crime.

Magnum PI spanned the 80’s, pretty much (80-88), while Dragnet lit up the old cathode ray tube in living rooms across the land (in its second incarnation, the first one airing in the early 50’s) from 1967-1970, a period that included Woodstock, and perhaps the fiercest part of the Vietnam War. The differences between the two shows make me think a lot about what America was in the 60’s and what it became in the 80’s. Between ‘67-‘70 we had the end of LBJ and the beginning of Nixon, and were in the middle of a counter-cultural revolution. In the 80’s, we had “the Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan (also known as Ronnie Ray gun, by some, for his addle-brained Star Wars Program), and were smarting from our defeat in Vietnam (which some would lay at the feet of the left, one of the combatants in that revolutionary battle). Magnum’s first episode was in the fall of ‘80 while Reagan won the Presidential Election in November of that year.

So, is art a result of the society in which it is created? Certainly, I would posit, this being just as obvious as the fact that Tom Selleck’s ears would not stick out as ridiculously far as Harry Morgan’s if he cut his hair, and that if there were early scripts where Friday got to kiss lots of women like Magnum, they were abandoned when it was found no actresses were willing to go through with it. We might also try to answer if TV is truly art, and if art created to make money reflects society as faithfully as art created for its own sake (if there is such a thing).

In Magnum’s first episode, he finds out his old buddy was framed as a drug mule (and murdered in the bargain) when that buddy, who would never take drugs, much less smuggle them, found out some Army higher up was involved with drug smuggling. Interesting, that this buddy would meet such an ignominious end, as Magnum and his buddy are good God fearing Americans who love the flag and fight bravely (Magnum does three tours, and likes to drink beer and Scotch, but apparently has never been one toke over the line, or even one toke on this side of it,) and he and his buddies are always outnumbered and outgunned by Viet Cong in black pajamas before TC flies in with his helicopter and saves them. They never napalm villages and cut the ears off their enemies. Not really very “Apocalypse Now“ or, certainly, “Full Metal Jacket.”

It’s as if the TV writers wanted to have their cake and eat it too—we would have won that war if the corrupt ‘system’ hadn’t failed us and those wishy-washy lefties had just shut the fuck up. The point is not merely that most of our men were brave and honorable, but that the Viet Cong were not, and we would have won that damned war save for the generals. So the establishment takes a hit but then again doesn’t, because if we just replace those generals (I’ve been Robert Macnamara’d and Maxwell Taylor’d to death and Andy Warhol won’t you please come home) with some real true American men, who are braver and more morally upright than any other men on earth (kind of like Boy Scouts, without the sodomy), we can go off and fight some more wars, like in Grenada and Panama, where we were just barely able to save the world from the Red Menace. And Magnum follows a trail of clues that are better than Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, clues which are easier to figure out than a Where’s Waldo puzzle, which is kind of disappointing.

But not as disappointing as the Mysteries Friday and his sidekick solve on Dragnet. I just watched the first episode, and although its intent was to terrify kids into not taking LSD, it made me think they were more afraid of those kids upsetting the status quo than about taking drugs. I mean, isn’t the subtext of all this “why can’t they just get drunk like us, and go to church, and make a lot of money off war, and toe the fucking party line?” It’s like the church trying to kill off your enjoyment of sex, because if you’re spending Sunday mornings screwing you’re not going to church and putting money in the collection plate, not worried about your after-life insurance because you are too focused on the here and now. Shit, the show made me feel like I was tripping already. I mean, Joe Friday, an obvious descendent of those noir tough guys of the 40’s, is laughable, a guy who couldn’t even punch out Barney the Dinosaur.

And his tough guy patter is ridiculous, especially with his bad haircut and McGruff the crime dog face—I’m always expecting, when he turns around, to see a kick-me sign on his back. The “kids” in the show take acid and chew the bark off trees, and lick the paint off paintbrushes, and this guy Friday comes after intoning, at the beginning of the show, “This is the city… I carry a badge”, this guy comes in and says, “What kind of kick are you on, kid” and arrests the young and stoned idiot on charges that he is leading a dissolute and immoral life! And the parents are reliably out of touch. The mother of the acid-dealer, who dies at the end because he “wanted to get further and further out, man,” tells Friday that “The boys nowadays are just always trying something silly, like growing their hair long, like those English singers.”

Oh, well, maybe we can’t call TV art. Or at least this kind of TV. Instead of taking an intelligent stand on one side or the other of the culture war, or trying to genuinely capture something of the conflict between the sides in the fight, these shows just spout the agitprop, the party line, of their rich sponsors (I wonder if Dow Chemical was one of them). I guess the TV execs figured that it was the parents who were going to be spending the money to buy what was advertised on the commercials, although they eventually realized kids spend money too, and came out with flameless bubble gum shows like the Partridge Family, where the family gets to drive around in a psychedelic bus, but are anything but a band of merry pranksters.

So, although on the surface the shows are different, Magnum much hipper than Friday, basking in the afterglow of the sexual revolution, both shows try to preserve the status quo by setting up straw men they can easily knock down, Friday exposing ungrateful, whiny teenagers who don’t know shit from shinola, as he speaks for and as the Establishment, and Magnum triumphing over venal military authority figures while still leaving room to love war (which you have to do if you love America, I suppose the message is), speaking for the Establishment while in disguise as a free-love loving baby boomer. Both shows try to win the culture war, only doing it in different ways, on different sides of the Vietnam War. If perhaps the real mystery in mystery novels and on TV is the mystery of why, why the criminals transgress and why the cops and detectives and Private Eyes need to pursue them, then these two characters are no mystery at all, but merely cardboard mouthpieces through which their corporate sponsors speak.

© 2014 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. Mike, I used to be glued to the TV and Magnum! Nowadays, the best dramas and mysteries are on C-Span, which I'm glued to whenever I have the time! Now here is where all the mystery world is!!!!! Recently I saw a brilliant mystery unfolded by the Russian minister to the USA. What a tale he spun - if I hadn't seen the NYT Page 1 I'd have had other thoughts re what the real world is! Thelma Straw in Manhattan