The Birth of TV Contrarianism

I once read an article about the quality TV — this was in a book of essays we were assigned for school, and this one wasn’t assigned, but I naturally gravitated to the one about television — where the author bashed a New Republic critic for preferring Wagon Train, a Western, to The Defenders, one of the ’60s most famous (and best) attempts at serious, quality TV drama. The author of the essay thought this TNR writer was being mindlessly contrarian and overlooking the distinction between a show that aims high even if it doesn’t always make it, like The Defenders, and a show that aims low, like the average Western. (TV Westerns were to their time what mystery procedurals are to our time: they were everywhere, and most were very up-front about their lack of ambition.)

Recently I decided to try and find that TNR piece, and it took me a while because, as it turned out, the Western being referred to was not Wagon Train as the essay author claimed, but Gunsmoke. The article was from 1965 and was written by John Gregory Dunne (later of the book The Studio and the novel True Confessions), and was more or less what the description promised: an attack on conceptions of “quality” television from an anti-midcult point of view. It was a type of criticism that was frequently applied to movies at the time, with critics in the U.S. and France attacking well-meaning movies that proclaimed their intention to deal with serious issues in a middle-of-the-road way, instead preferring either genre movies (which, it was claimed, were often more personal and interesting) or independent movies that could deal with these issues without the compromise of Hollywood.

Dunne tried to take that line of thinking and turn it on television, making the argument that what TV writers considered to be profound or serious wasn’t anything of the kind:

“Profundity,” “commitment” — if there is anything television doesn’t need, it’s more of this kind of pseudo-seriousness. Because what television writers mean by involvement is leaking liberalism of the most objectionable, secondhand sort all over the tube. There is a numbing earnestness in this ritual, a pattern of standard clichés peopled by standard gurus. Blacklisting, wiretapping, civil disobedience, the model scarcely varies. First make society the villain, and if society can be represented as a public relations man, so much the better. (There is an essay somewhere, on the role of the PR man in the demonology of midcult.) Then stack the deck… Over the years, I have watched a half dozen shows on capital punishment, the gist of each being that television is on the side of the angels only if its man in Death Row has an IQ of 197 and has written a book on the evils of the penal system.

Another argument in the piece, also familiar from film criticism, is that Hollywood writers are not usually profound thinkers, and that their idea of a great, uncompromised work is usually a work full of hackneyed ideas. (This is not an idea confined to the ’60s, of course. Alan Ball, who escaped from sitcom hackwork and said what he’d always wanted to say — mostly stuff we already knew — may be the greatest illustration of the type.) He tells us the background of a writer whom he re-names “Luke Lowell,” and then says:

I don’t mean to disparage Luke Lowell. I envy both his income and his ability to concoct fifteen hour-long plots a year. He is an intelligent, inventive craftsman, but I don’t think he has anything to tell anyone about the human condition. Yet the romantic notion persists, reinforced by Merle Miller in his dreary book, Only You, Dick Daring!, that something called The System is forcing writers to sell out. To indulge in this notion, you’d have to believe that the Writers Guild of America (West) is full of budding Strindbergs, or that the BBC, which has none of The System’s commercial restrictions, is introducing a new Arthur Wing Pinero every week.

(“Only You, Dick Daring!” was about Miller’s experience creating a TV pilot and seeing it watered down by notes from the network and the stars; it’s one of the first long examples of that particular subgenre.)

Like many anti-midcult critics, the stuff Dunne likes tends to fall in the high or low ends of the spectrum. On the high end, he cites a capital punishment episode from an unidentified series (mentioning only that it was by the prolific Sterling Silliphant before he “went profound”). The difference between this and every other capital punishment episode, he says, was that there was no attempt to create special sympathy for the victim and that it simply showed us, in detail, what the system is like, trusting us to be shaken by it but not preaching at us.

There was no nonsense in this about there being no such thing as a bad boy; the only didacticism, in fact, came from a tired, old cop giving the state’s view on capital punishment. The rest of the hour was virtually a documentary on the minutiae of witnessing an execution, from seating arrangements in the death chamber to the fitting of the metal skullcap over the victim’s head. It was so straightforward and unplatitudinous that a gentleman in Commentary, no doubt brainwashed by by The Defenders, père et fils, spouting Blackstone, construed it as a right-wing tract in favor of the death penalty. Hardly.

Today we can see this model of “high” TV to a certain extent in shows like The Wire, which try their best to avoid middlebrow special pleading; while they don’t avoid preaching altogether, they do it in a less on-the-nose way than typical “issue” TV.

And the other type of TV Dunne enthuses about is lowbrow TV that manages, by playing on its own conventions and the limitations in which it operates, to deal with bigger themes than the shows that consciously try to pose the big issues. And that’s where Gunsmoke comes in, near the end of the piece:

As it happened, I was bedridden for a time last winter and became a captive viewer again. If my impatience with the problem shows was total, so also was my amazement that television could occasionally entertain. Cowboys and cops and robbers, the classic plots with new twists: This is the real stuff of dramatic TV.

Don’t laugh. The best show I saw all last season was on Gunsmoke. It was about a boy who mistakenly thought he had killed a man, and with his pregnant wife, went on the run. The story was not in the chase, but in the slowly changing relationship between husband and wife as the boy was driven to keep his own appointment in Samarra. In fact, there is a profound theme; public housing (vide any episode of East Side, West Side) is not.

(You might note that all the character development he describes here takes place among guest characters; Gunsmoke, like many Westerns and procedurals, was essentially a disguised anthology drama where the real focus was on characters we’d never see again.)

I think there’s a lot to argue with in that article, and in true New Republic tradition it sometimes smacks of contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake. But I did find it a worthwhile, and still relevant read, a reminder that dealing with a theme is not always the same as doing it successfully, or that a show’s stated ambition is not necessarily the same as what it achieves. In any case, it’s good to know that contrarianism was alive and well in TV criticism almost 50 years ago.

Now I have to find out which Gunsmoke episode he was referring to (even assuming he was accurately describing the plot). And that could take even longer than finding the article.

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