Monday, February 3, 2014
Cardboard Cops and Hero PIs
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.
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).
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