Does everybody remember Dan Quayle? He was vice president during the presidency of the older George Bush, and when Bush tapped him as his running mate during the Republican convention of ‘88 (held in New Orleans, by the way), his Democratic senatorial brethren laughed. He was viewed as a lightweight.
I don’t remember much about Quayle’s four years in office except that he made a comment about the storyline of a television show that was popular in the day. It was “Murphy Brown,” a sit-com featuring an upscale single woman (Candice Bergen) who got pregnant by a man she wasn’t asked — or didn’t want — to marry, and decided to keep and raise her baby.
Quayle said the show sent a bad message to young women and he was jeered by the press for the remark. I don’t think he was challenging the right of mature and financially independent single women to decide to have families, but — like me — was uncomfortable with a TV plot that seemed to raise the option of unwed motherhood for those not as savvy and affluent. Murphy simply took the show into territory for which there was no map.I got to thinking about that the other day when I went to my eye doctor, and orbs wet with drops was ushered to a dark, eight -by-ten room where my pupils would dilate for an examination. A large TV set on the wall was tuned into a reality show starring two women loudly and hysterically arguing over possession of a man whom one of them said was the father of her child. The other, the guy’s current squeeze, said it wasn’t so, and before many minutes had passed lunged and began slapping Mama about the head and pulling her hair. Eyes widened if not dilated, I left the room.Given a choice, I don’t watch so-called reality programming at all, but every now and then I’m unwillingly made aware of the depths to which our popular culture has sunk. This is TV programming that Dan Quayle surely could not have even imagined it. We’ve gone from Murphy Brown to Roseanne Barr’s tiresome discussions about her PMS problems to this kind of spectacle that surely must lead little girls whose mothers aren‘t paying attention to think that screeching and slapping are just fine.
We’ve gone from the old “Law & Order,” in which corpses were glimpsed only once and Lennie always lightened up the situation with a witty comment, to the “CSI” and “Body of Proof” shows where the murdered — laid out for the duration and poked and probed all during the hour by the forensics team — are starring members of the cast and should be identified in the credits.
And how about those hospital shows on which every broom closet is the setting for a sexual assignation and the resident or intern who hasn’t kept a date with an “attending” in one or two of them is a rarity? If “reality” is rough, then “unreality” is even more so. I just hope I‘m not a patient before this particular trend wears off.
Actually, we seemingly don’t have absolutely definitive answers as to how television influences — or not — our society. Google “television shows/social impact” and you can read the discussion on the subject. Whether TV accurately reflects us is another question. I don’t know about you, but I worry about that.
In any case, which network and cable executives disposed of the idea that television entertainment is supposed to be fun, sometimes uplifting, sometimes humorous, colorful and pretty and often educational? I miss it.
When I go back to my eye doctor, I’m going to ask him to turn on The History Channel if he won‘t keep his place quiet enough for me to read my book.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.