Monday, August 02, 2004

Note: Second in a series of tangentially linked essays. – The ‘Pede

When I was a kid, Westerns ruled the broadcast airwaves, and for the most part they were something my father watched, while my mother and I got bored and played checkers instead. I did, however, watch Bonanza more than occasionally, mostly because I was a sitcom kind of kid and a few of the episodes were actually funny. I also have vague memories of being disappointed when Pernell Roberts quit the show, although I have almost no recollection of his character's actual presence. As I remember, he was irked by, among other things, the unreality of TV series in general and his own in particular, and I'd have to vote on the same side, for at least two reasons.

First of all: Westerns of the sixties usually had a few basic common elements, like lots of shootouts, barroom brawls, and melodramatic plots involving strangers with dark secrets. My claim is that anyone who had been shot, punched out, thrown through windows, and harassed by con artists, land-grabbers, and gigolos of both sexes as much as the members of the average TV Western family would no longer be rugged-but-cute, level-headed, philosophically-inclined upright citizens. They'd undoubtedly be missing more than a few teeth (if not any other actual body parts) and would have been reduced either to abject, wrecked masses of nervous tics or else holders of violent, fulminating prejudices. Or maybe both at once. Make a loud noise behind anyone with this kind of emotional baggage and the best possible outcome would be that at least one of you would quickly have to change your underwear. (That's assuming that most of the people so aggrieved didn't throw everything over, catch the first stagecoach back in the general direction of Chicago, and never look back.)

Second: When you really think about it, the aforementioned plot elements just don't pass the bull test. Like I said, I've never been a connoisseur of Westerns, but growing up in a blue-collar ethnic New England mill-town neighborhood, I encountered a lot of late-thirtysomething males who had yet to move out of their parents' houses. The daily routines of these guys were defined less by gripping drama or life-or-death decisions than by extreme tedium. I can't imagine that people were all that different in the old West. One example: Given the sparseness of the human population in Nevada in the 1860s, where and how would you find so damned many people with whom to share the experience of a barroom brawl? By the time you drank enough red-eye to hallucinate the presence of an opponent, you'd have thrown up on yourself and passed out draped over the hitching post. That is, if you didn't actually try to start a fistfight with your horse. (This kind of errant behavior could cost you even more teeth than would a real barroom brawl. I wouldn't recommend it, not even in those pre-ASPCA days - and I don't even own a horse.)

At any rate, I think I could have come up with some much more realistic plotlines. For instance:

Ben and Adam fix the front steps of the house. Hoss milks some cows. Hop Sing goes grocery shopping in town. A bored Little Joe sneaks out in the family buggy and gets arrested for cow-tipping on a neighboring ranch. A falling cow dents the buggy, and Adam and Hoss have to fix it.

The boys brand some cattle, and then Adam and Hoss fix the back steps of the house. A very bored Little Joe sneaks behind the barn to drink beer, staggers back to the house, and throws up on the freshly painted steps. Adam and Hoss, enraged, toss Little Joe into the horse trough. Ben stomps around and swears a lot.

Little Joe falls in love with a new neighbor’s daughter, but is crushed when she tells him she doesn't like him very much. He gets even by tipping over the outhouse while she's in it, and then gets drunk on cheap whiskey and throws up in Hoss's hat. Since Little Joe is too hung over to be of assistance, Ben, Hoss, and Adam have to fix the wrecked outhouse.

Brooding over the constraints of ranch life, Adam leaves the Ponderosa to start a new life as a hardware store clerk in Virginia City. Someone tries to engage Hoss in a bar brawl, but he tells them to @&$#* off and quickly leaves. Little Joe gets the new schoolmarm in trouble and has to marry her. The townspeople and some Indians living nearby leave one another alone.

Ben marries a nice widow with no debts, no fatal diseases, and no checkered past. They move back East to be near her relatives, and leave Hoss to manage the ranch. Left alone at the Ponderosa, Hoss gets old and grouchy and spends a lot of time yelling at kids to get out of his yard.

You can see where this kind of thinking leads you, and why it's incompatible with the suspension of disbelief that is so necessary to enjoyable TV viewing. In fact, it's entirely too easy to extend this brand of brutal realism to other classic series of different genres and eras:

Star Trek: McCoy has to cope with an outbreak of pink-eye among the Enterprise crew. The enlisted members of the crew gripe about the low pay, the monotonous food, the utter boredom of patrolling deep space, and the fact that their health plan covers only half the cost of their prescription eyedrops. Scotty installs software upgrades on the teleporters. Kirk and Spock do some paperwork.

Mannix: For the fifteenth time in a single month, Joe Mannix peeps through the window of a cheap motel to obtain photographic evidence for a client’s divorce suit. His girl friend, a fiftyish, chain-smoking grandmother of three who works as a waitress in a diner and drives a beat-up 1959 Ford, threatens to dump him unless he gets a less depressing job. While catching up on paperwork, Peggy finds out that 65% of their clients are delinquent in their accounts.

ER: Carter treats a miserably uncomfortable little kid whose parents waited until 3 AM to bring her in to be treated for an earache. The residents complain about their substandard pay and outrageous working hours. The hospital copes with budget cuts in its medical education programs while its board of directors goes ahead with a $700,000 landscaping project. Kerry gripes about insurance companies, and then yells at Luka because he's behind on his paperwork.

Law and Order: The cops grumble about paperwork. Everyone in the DA's office also grumbles about paperwork. Family members of the accused grumble about the defense attorney's fees. McCoy grumbles about everything. Another assistant DA quits.

All in the Family: Archie calls Edith a "dingbat". Edith throws Archie's bowling shoes in his face and locks him out of the bedroom. Archie calls Mike a "dumb Polack". Mike calls Archie a "stupid bigoted @#&$-head", storms out of the house, and moves into Uncle Caz’s in-law apartment. Edith and Gloria start drinking in secret.

Hawaii Five-O: Danny calls in with “blue flu” so he can go marlin fishing. Chin Ho and Kono bust a quiet, arthritic 72-year-old houseboat renter, without a struggle, for possession of an eighth of an ounce of low-quality marijuana. They then make unprintable multilingual comments about the depressing nature of their jobs. McGarrett gripes about paperwork.

Are You Being Served?: Some people buy clothes. Nothing else of interest happens.

(Y’know, in retrospect, I probably should have just given up and watched more Westerns. My mother always cleaned my clock at checkers anyway.)


Post a Comment

<< Home