So, picture this. It's a Wednesday evening and my roommates and I are watching television. If this scenario were taking place in England, the person in control of the remote would be disconsolately flicking through all four (yes, count 'em, four) channels, trying to choose between a gardening program, a cooking program, a program where D-list celebrities make over the master bedrooms of other D-list celebrities or a flashback program titled something like “The Best Of 1986” and hosted, of course, by one of the D-list celebrities not famous enough to make it onto the show about redecorating.
Thanks to the disgruntled channel-surfer and the pitiful haul of possible entertainment, none of us would get to watch more than five minutes of each offering. Instead, all four programs would be presented in a choppy staccato effect, as we flicked from planting rhododendrons, to executing the perfect cheese soufflé, to stripped pine headboards, to Corey Feldman (remember him?), back again to rhododendrons, cheese soufflé, Corey Feldman, rhododendrons, stripped pine headboards, cheese soufflé. And so on and so on, until we'd give up on the TV and go down to the pub.
At least in America there are enough channels that by the time you've finished surfing through all of them, something new has probably begun on the one you started with. And as my roommates and I are watching television in America this particular evening, we have found-somewhere amongst our 900-and-something different stations-a program that we all agree on. That's the good news. The bad news, I'm afraid, is that the program seems to be about boomerangs.
A middle-aged Goliath of a man, who bears an uncanny resemblance to every sadistic gym teacher I ever encountered during my formative years, is demonstrating the difference between a two- and a three-winged boomerang. We are transfixed. Not even Goliath's disturbingly tiny blue flannel outfit (which, interestingly enough, probably would guarantee him a place on an English television show entitled “The Best Of 1986”) can put us off. And take it from me, the overall effect is not pretty. “He,” asserts my roommate impassively, eyebrows calmly raised, “is a very big man for those shorts.”
And still we watch the rest of the show.
That's the thing about American television, it sucks you in. Take, for example, this program 30 Seconds To Fame, in which assorted contortionists, ventriloquists and plain old-fashioned wackos curl themselves into boxes and mimic five different bird calls for the amusement of a primetime audience. The show appears to epitomize that old remark that television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home. Except “entertained” is pushing it a bit. The only people who should feel marginally more ridiculous than those participating in this bizarre grotesquerie are the people watching it. And yet, for reasons I have yet to fathom, the program does well.
Maybe it's just a case of good old Schadenfreude There is something mildly cheering about watching a person so desperate to capitalize on his proverbial 15 minutes of fame that he will not only condense it to a meager 30 seconds, but will then spend it impersonating a parakeet. The producers of the show seem to have taken lessons from the Jerry Springer School of Entertainment, and have realized that audiences love to watch people making fools themselves. Of course, if those people are fat and naked and prone to mud wrestling their relatives, then so much the better.
Mr. Springer's infamous side show, in fact, might be the original 30 Seconds To Fame; instead of fire-eaters and jugglers, the guests on his program vie for center stage by revealing their ability to loudly contest paternity tests and spout phrases like “talk to the hand.” These fame-seekers really do get their 15 minutes and their 15 minutes only; emotional aftermath is sacrificed for the sake of catering to the lowest common denominator. Nobody wants to know how the guy whose wife left him for a transvestite hooker is going to feed his three kids; we all want to chant “Go Jerry” and do that raise-the-roof thing with our hands. I once happened to catch the end of a Springer special during which it was revealed to a perfectly innocuous-looking teenage girl that her scallywag of a boyfriend was sleeping not only with her mother, but with her octogenarian grandmother, too. Needless to say, it was fairly disgusting, and I couldn't eat much more of my lunch after witnessing it, but I didn't feel any particular pity for the girl. To lose a boyfriend to one family member might, as Oscar Wilde would say, be regarded as misfortune; to lose him to two just looks like carelessness.
Yes, I have made many television mistakes in my time. I once became so convinced by an infomercial that I actually bought a Nordic Track. In college I formed an addiction to daytime TLC and one long day witnessed two liposuctions, three blind dates, four births (one a Caesarean), two weddings and a makeover. And if tickled or bribed, I'll even admit that I occasionally watch the Pet Psychic.
There is one show, however, whose very existence atones for all the wasted hours I've spent slumped in front of Tori Spelling movies. It is the esteemed, venerable Jeopardy, winner of 21 daytime Emmys, bastion of wholesome American entertainment and current dictator of my evening schedule. And the children's version is even better, because correctly answering questions designed for 11-year-olds not only makes me feel marginally less ridiculous when shouting out replies in the form of a question, but also dupes me into thinking I'm a trivia mastermind. Alex Trebek for president, I say.
And I'll be waiting for a question about three-winged boomerangs.