here are around 900 million TV sets across the USA, from the oil-stations of Anchorage to the condos of Miami, from the boarded-up beach-houses of Long Island to the security-gated mansions of Beverly Hills (where cable reception isn’t as good as it was). Every set, from the smallest Sony portable to the 64‘ stereo multi-screen has just two channel buttons: Up and Down.
Flipping across the spectrum of American TV is the post-modern equivalent of driving coast-to- coast, and marginally less costly to the environment. This is continental exploration for the mall-rat generation, an American odyssey for the 30-second culture consumer. All the diversity of the USA is here, like a cross-section of a particularly thick and artiﬁcial layer-cake: the hip cosmopolitan wise- cracking, the drugs. the violence, the down-home philosophy, the hellﬁre religion. the arcane sports that you only ﬁnd in America, even that vast emptiness at the geographical and cultural heart of the USA. And that’s just CBS. Entertainment has never been this remorseless, this attractive. this disposable and this memorable, all at the same time.
In New York City. with basic cable there are 73 numbers on the dial. You can start anywhere you like. I picked the TV equivalent of New Jersey, an ad for Death Wish V (‘he’s still angry’) appropriately followed by another ad. featuring a tubby chap belching. He obviously needed Rolaid, the panacea for ‘indigestion, ﬂatulence and related stomach disorders'. TV in America is too commercial- minded to be sparing of sensibilities. which is off- putting in ads. but genuinely attractive in comedies.
Witness NBC's MadAbout You a routine relationship comedy spiced up with gags about homosexuality (‘l’m not talking about San Francisco or London, I mean regular placesl‘). Cyndi Lauper as a vamp. and a script littered with popular culture in-references, including a particularly adroit Indecent Proposal pastiche. While British TV characters exist in a strange vacuum where they never watch the box, American shows are forever talking about the movies or other TV characters. a device which, contrary to expectations. adds realism.
during the Prohibition era. It was criticised for its violence at the time. and still looks stylish in re-runs.
is for The Vlrglnlan, a routine
Western series in most
respects. but notable for the peculiar cultural resonances it evokes in British Generation Xers. due to its saturation coverage on early evening TV in the late 60s and early 70s. and its elusive but wonderful theme tune. James Drury
was the eponymous ranch foreman of the title. Doug McLure his impetuous pal Trampas.
is for Wild Palms. Oliver
Stone and Bruce Wagner‘s
‘cybersoap‘ which was cruelly savaged on both sides of the Atlantic. It deserves credit though. if only for the way it addressed the future of the televisual medium
16 The List 28 January-l0 February I994
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‘It was apparent that this was a ﬂip Moment, a split-second when you have to change channels so that the delicious frissons of what you have just seen can resonate a little longer.’
ABC News is but a couple of hops away. with wall- to-wall weather and scare stories about the ‘Arctic Storm' (a chill breeze by Scots standards) currently sweeping into New York. Harder news came in the form of the juicy story of Olympic skater Nancy Herrigan who had been clubbed rather crudely on the knee by a couple of hoods during the build-up to the Olympic trials. The police had just arrested the minder of Tonya Harding. Kerrigan‘s main rival. in connection with the attack.
It was a peculiarly satisfying tale. hoodlums and ice-skaters interwining in this sad slice of mindless violence. perfectly attuned to the British conception of what America is all about. When the police chief turned out to be one Benny Napoleon. it was
All we gave him was a sack of tortilla chips, a case of beer and a remote control. Torn Lappin wraps up warm and surfs the waves of New York TV for a ﬁfteen-hour stretch.
traditional (and admittedly
nerds and conspiracy buffs.
realms of extreme scientiﬁc
sweeping the US networks.
granny from Hell
US TV from A to Zee
itself. within the constraints of a
melodramatic) soap drama format. is for The X-Flles. a ratings success that began as a cult show for sci-ﬁ fans. computer
Essentially it's a crime thriller with a supernatural twist. The 'lirilight Zone for urban sophisticates. The weirdness is always kept within the
possibility. unlike a spate of new futuristic sci-ﬁ shows currently
is for Yogl Bear. the most
popular Hanna Barbera cartoon
character in a whole menagerie of anthropomorphic creatures to enjoy animated adventures. When the studio experimented with human characters and old 50s sitcom scripts
apparent that this was a Flip Moment, a split-second when you have to change channels so that the delicious frissons of what you have just seen can resonate a little longer.
Careful with that remote though, or you can ﬁnd yourself on HSN. the Home Shopping Network. On offer was a ‘reversible coloured hockey coat’, a snip at 867 although it did look disturbingly like a dayglo parka. A ﬂickering number in the top comer of the screen kept track of how many had been sold. They’d shifted 120 before I tore my eyes from the hypnotic grip. and ﬂipped to . . .
. a diarrhea ad. Or rather a diarrhea cure ad. Americans can‘t spell the unfortunate bowel condition. but boy can they cure it. ‘We’ll have you back on solids within an hour’ wasn’t the ﬁnal slogan, but you felt it so easily could have been. NBC was on a similar tack: ‘Colon Cancer!’ screamed the message in a particularly harrowing public information ﬁlm, cutely followed by an ad for ‘The Great American Breakfast’ buttermilk pancakes with syrup. eggs, bacon and sausage.
And so on, into the night with Robin Byrd on public access cable station 72. Robin is a cheery Tina Turner lookalike who is mostly ﬁlmed from the neck-up. It later becomes apparent that this is because Robin is wearing little more than a couple of leather thongs. Her show follows a simple format: female stripper. followed by male stripper,
interspersed with ads for explicit sex phone lines.
As George says in yet another episode of Seinfeld, ‘Ifl had that in my house. I’d never turn it off.’
Across the airways. ﬂesh blends into Spanish chat-
show, Lithuanian religious discussion merges
with MTV videos. right-wing bigmouth Rush Limbaugh segues into thirtysomething reruns. Arctic Storm blows its hardest out there in real-
-li-feville and before you know it's time for Good Day
New York on Fox. ‘Trend analyst’ Faith Popcorn (oh those names) is talking about the latest thing, ‘Pleasure Revenge’. the act of slobbing out and feeling good about it instead of staying ﬁt and alert.
I know where she‘s coming from. Outside it’s America, I‘ve got a reversible hockey coat to protect me from Arctic Storm and in every dream home I
there’s a chat show. Missing you already. C] i
The Flintstones: Fred Is the Stone Age John Goodman
the result was the legendary Flintsones, living proof that in animation terms the rule is often the older the joke the better. as anyone who has witnessed recent arrivals like Rude Dog And The Dweebs will testify.
is for Efrem Zimbalist .lnr —
whoever he is, and for zzzzzzz as
we recall all those also-rans like Bewitched. The High Chaparral, Dick Van Dyke. Scooby-Doo. Soap, Barney Miller (enough with the American Tl
. . get outta here . . .). CI