Last night, to relax, I did something I hardly ever do nowadays: I watched TV. An unusual thing to say, you might think, for someone who, over the past eleven years, has been a weekly TV reviewer on the BBC.
But that’s the great thing about TV nowadays, you don’t have to watch it.
In this modern age, a critic no longer has to bother with the very device he’s meant to be an authority on. He just has to be prepared to spend inordinate lengths of time in front of a computer, trawling sites from Yahoo! to YouTube to Hulu to the networks’ own sites, looking for snippets of shows that seem moderately interesting, then skipping through them with his cursor, cutting out any extraneous dialogue, filler or scenic shots, and all tender moments, to just focus on the key action. In the average hour-long drama, this amounts to roughly four minutes of watchable material.
The process saves hours of my time. Time I can devote to more interesting things: such as learning the oboe, designing my own moon rocket, or eating cake. (I’m doing these in reverse order. Right now, I’m focusing on the cake.)
Anyway, last night, as I said, I did the unthinkable, and caught an episode of Family Guy, which has officially taken over from The Simpsons as the cartoon du choix of all right-thinking people. The Simpsons just doesn’t cut it any more, not since the movie came out. I know it was a massive hit around the world, but truthfully it wasn’t that good. I laughed twice. And one of those times was at my own foolishness for renting it.
But anyway, my point is, I watched Family Guy and was immediately reminded, as I always am when I see phony, invented families on TV, of how dysfunctional my own family is.
Current state of play: mother dead; brother not talking to me for eleven years due to his wife’s unspeakable fear of brothers; father not talking to me for a million other reasons. It’s not a happy set-up on the whole and could have been scripted better. Especially the ending, which is imminent but hasn’t happened yet, though already I can tell it’s not going to go well.
In sitcoms, endings are always neatly tied up. Even the most convoluted plotlines are manhandled to a satisfying conclusion in which people decide to get along despite their differences and somehow lessons are learned, redemption earned, and the basic threads of love that knit the family together prevail. Because nothing’s more important than love, right? At least, that’s what I take away from these things.
And I should know. I grew up watching every sitcom around, American and British, from the Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched to On The Buses and ‘Til Death Us Do Part. They were a major influence. Though at the time, I couldn’t help wondering why it was that fictional families were painted so idealistically on TV and why they bore no resemblance at all to families in the real world. My family, for instance.
Then I realized: it was my family that was bizarrely out of step.
On American TV, in one season alone, sitcom families resolve their differences and move on with their lives twenty-two times. And they do that year after year. Because there’s an undercurrent, albeit contrived, of love and respect behind their actions. The message: nothing is so serious that it should be allowed to break bonds christened in blood. Something I myself believe very firmly. It’s just not within my personal experience, that’s all.
I’ve often wondered why my dad isn’t speaking to me, and why it’s gone on for so damned long. In fact, I’ve debated the issue many times with psychiatrists and other experts I meet during reporting assignments. They always have theories, but nothing concrete, because they don’t know him. And he’s not a bad guy. Honestly. If they met him, they’d like him. He’s funny and intelligent, exquisitely honest, with a great brain for learning and analysis. We’re very similar in that respect. His influence is all over my work. In theory at least, our relationship should be going gangbusters. So it’s hard to figure out what went wrong.
Having said that, I at least know where the current problem started – with one particular storyline, involving a small misunderstanding that should in theory have led to hilarious consequences, but didn’t. All my fault, it seems, but it caused a rift so divisive and grim that it went into syndication, and is still there.
I won’t bore you with too many details – I’m surprised you made it this far, quite honestly – but here it is in a nutshell, because it’s a lesson in bad writing. Someday, I’m convinced, they’ll teach this crap in colleges.
In 1999, I worked for a public radio show in America called The Savvy Traveler, now defunct. One day, my editor received a press release from my home town, Manchester in northern England, which was being touted as a new vacation destination, albeit a somewhat twisted, you’d-have-to-be-a-maniac-or-high-on-drugs-to-want-to-go-there-on-holiday one, and decided it might be fun to send me back as a tourist. Terrific premise, I thought.
So a three-day press trip was arranged. It was like a combat mission. Fly to Britain, see Manchester in a day, pretend it would make a vacation destination for anything other than lunatics, and fly out again.
While there, naturally I called my dad to say hi. (He’d since moved to York, which is on the other side of the country.)
“Guess where I am,” I said. “I’m in Manchester.”
“Oh,” he replied, sounding happy. “Are you coming to visit me?”
“Sorry, I can’t. I’m on a press trip. I have to go straight back to America again. Maybe next time.”
And that was that. An innocent moment. All very civil and friendly.
Yet, apparently, somehow, without even realizing it, I’d sparked an inferno, one that continues to rage with the same intensity ten seasons later as it did when I inadvertently lit it.
“You come to England, you don’t visit your old dad. How could you do such a thing?”
It was a slight but not a slight, if you know what I mean. I’ve apologized a million times, but to no avail. He doesn’t understand. So his anger smolders on, growing exponentially, never to be extinguished.
At the very least, this helped me understand real world issues a little more. I mean, if my own father couldn’t bring himself to forgive me for such a minor infraction, what chance was there of ever satisfactorily ironing out difficulties between Israel and Palestine, for instance? Zero.
Since then, all sorts of peculiar plot twists have happened. So many that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. In fact, some of them are so implausible that I think the show may have jumped the shark. I sent him a lovely card for his 80th birthday, for instance, one that happened to be a whole lot smaller than cards he received from other people. No big deal, but that too was perceived as a slight. As if I could foretell how big the rest of the cards were going to be – c’mon, now!
It’s all quite funny on one level. Yet immeasurably sad on every other one.
But wait. Things are shifting.
Uh-oh. There are signs that the present season may be the last.
To begin with, one of the main characters has decided to leave, citing creative differences, and few sitcoms can survive that.
They could try replacing my dad with someone else, I guess – a younger, more accepting guy, for instance – but it didn’t work on Bewitched, why would it work here? The original is the best; my dad is my dad. The audience has grown used to the old curmudgeon, they like him, he’s irreplaceable. So I’m the one who’s moving on.
For me, the plot of this soap is becoming thin and tired, and beginning to test my allegiance. Much as I love the grumpy old goat, I’ve grown weary of the drama. Being ignored year upon year can really test your patience, I find. Fights without hope of reconciliation eventually lead to a dead end and viewers lose interest. That’s what’s happening here.
These days, I’m driven to flick to other channels in search of fresh material. My partner, for instance, has a large, hearty family that runs like a well-tuned locomotive, fueled by deep love and respect and joy for one another, and they’ve embraced me unconditionally – a set-up I’ve never known, and which feels totally alien, yet the pay-off is very appealing. So that’s what I’m glued to now. My new thing. Though in the back of my mind, I always secretly wish my dad would reconsider: come around, and sign up for another couple of seasons while he still has the chance.
But he won’t. I know him. That’s just how it is.
In the meantime, I can always catch the old show in reruns. My memory is phenomenal for small details and odd situations. Plus, I have relatives who keep me posted on developments. Beyond that, though, I think it’s over.
This painful, yet oddly intriguing, piece of homespun theater has been such a major part of my life for so long, even more than Bewitched was, or the Dick Van Dyke Show, or Til Death Us Do Part, that it’ll be hard to let go. I was there at the beginning, so of course I’ll always treasure a certain fondness for the characters and their bitter-sweet interactions.
The ride wasn’t fun, or even emotionally rewarding, but it was a story I knew and thought I understood, and it shaped me and my world-view in very many positive ways, so I’m grateful. I may not tune in any more, and there’ll be no reunion shows in the future, so everyone will lose track of everyone else. But one thing’s for sure, I’ll always be a fan.
After all, I still love the main character. I can’t help it.
We’ll be right back after these words….
TV Swami – he say YES to Family Guy.
Watch the video for Cash’s new book, Naked in Dangerous Places.