A thousand years ago, the kings of Asia rode off to war on the backs of elephants. It was the best seat in the house. Kings like to look down on us from a lofty perch. A French Revolution only became imaginable after the first Montgolfier hot-air balloon enabled ordinary citizens to sneak a peek at Louis’s Versailles. No wonder generals and presidents are so partial to whirlybirds. They hover over the hoi polloi. The point of view is imperial.
As Sydney and Moscow lit up on New Year’s Eve, while Paris and London burned, we were encouraged by the example of Peter Jennings, looking down affably from his wall of monitors in a glass booth on Times Square, to consider our own point of view. Thanks to television, aren’t all of us on top of the elephant, privileged with the best seat in the house for coronations and impeachments, for moon shots and assassinations, for earthquakes and O.J.? As if from a zeppelin, isn’t our vantage superior to the fixed positions of the official participants and court historians, with multiple views of every occasion, in intimate focus or broad scan? Tethered to the all-news, all-sports, all-weather, and all-porn channels, aren’t we also in the closet, behind the scenes, and under the bed, with an IV feed of raw data and expert chitchat on gossipy demand, by royal whim?
This was just in time. Except for Jennings, like one of those marvelous Ferris wheels on the Champs-Elysées, network television’s fall season would have ended with the taste of aspirin and ferric oxide. Regis and wrestling! Quiz shows and smackdown! Never mind the resurgence in prime time of dramatic series like Judging Amy and The West Wing. The real story was the stealing of the November “sweeps” by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC, which inspired Greed: The Series on Fox, which accounts for Twenty One on NBC, and the latest, CBS’s British import Winning Lines – so as to have something to compete in the money-grubbing sweepstakes with Regis three times a week, or more, as if he were Dateline or 20/20 or Ted Koppel.
I know I’m supposed to feel fuzzy about Regis after all he’s put up with for so many years from Kathie Lee, as if he were an old Bolshevik at a Stalinist show trial. But as an avatar of quick riches and the leisure life, an etherized embodiment of the abstract concept of upward mobility, he is as farcical as Matt Damon’s homoerotic serial killer in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Are we entirely bonkers, still expecting Ed McMahon to knock at dawn on our lucky door? Maybe we’ve read so many Victorian novels that we really expect every governess and orphan to escape penury by virtue of a kindly benefactor, a surprise inheritance, a fortunate marriage, or immigration to Australia. Maybe we’ve so bought into the idea of the social order as a Big Casino that we really think we can rely on state lotteries to pay for education and new cigarette taxes to pay for health care and indentured servitude to punish the homeless. Maybe we’ve been so brainwashed by TV commercials that sell us cars by promising adventure and sell us beer by promising friendship that we really believe there’s a Regis waiting at the bottom of our box of Cracker Jack.
We were promised an elephant, and we got a game show: Going, going … Gong.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of television this week that neither insults our intelligence nor flatters our avarice. NYPD Blue (Tuesday, January 11; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) returns at last for what is said to be the last obsessive season for executive producers Steven Bochco and David Milch, not to mention Nicholas Turturro, whose Detective Martinez will be departing. Rick Schroder’s Sorenson will get a female cop to play with (Sheeri Rappaport). Andrea Thompson’s Kirkendall will flirt all over again with her drug-dealing ex-hubby (Erich Anderson). James McDaniel’s Lieutenant Fancy will finally have a black brother in the station house (Henry Simmons). And you won’t want to miss next week’s (January 18) episode, in which Erik Todd Dellums, who played Homicide’s satanic prince Luther Mahoney, returns to prime time as, astonishingly, a transsexual prostitute.
But the biggest news about NYPD Blue is that its very first hour of the new millennium actually deplores police brutality. Sipowicz and Sorenson are called upon to investigate a death by excessive force that disgusts them, quite as though the series hadn’t spent its last three years egging us on to believe that warrantless searches and street-side shakedowns, wiretaps and rico prosecutions, abuses of plea bargains and immunity waivers, smacking a snitch upside his head, coercing confessions from uppity perps, and contempt for Miranda and every other nicety that’s supposed to distinguish our legal system from, say, Myanmar’s, weren’t the normal respiration of organic cop tissue in the holy war against urban crime. For this about-face, thank you.
There is more Bochco next door, kinder and gentler in his new inner-city hospital show City of Angels (previewing Sunday, January 16; subsequently Wednesdays, starting January 19; 8 to 9 p.m.; CBS). After a regrettable opening scene of Uncle Remus necrophilia, Angels settles in to consider the problems of delivering decent health care to a community of the homeless, the indigent, and the working poor, not to mention Shaft jokes, a mix-up of Johnsons in the morgue, and a shorthanded staff because one of the doctors got eaten by hyenas in Zimbabwe. A bearded Blair Underwood stars as a high-minded surgeon, a delectable Vivica A. Fox as the administrator who used to sleep with him, a Machiavellian Michael Warren as the CEO, a flabbergasting Robert Morse as the eccentric chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and the dreadlocked Hill Harper and the Jewish Phil Buckman as pepper-and-salt competing residents. Think ER with salsa and the blues. At least: a whole new cast of characters to wonder about after some of us have decided we already know too much about Andy Sipowicz.
Also returning for another thirteen hours is The Sopranos (Sundays, starting January 16; 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO), with Tony looking for a new therapist. One candidate, a young male wearing blue jeans, turns him down because he’s already seen Analyze This. Meanwhile, Tony’s long-lost hippie-dippy sister Pavarti, played to communal-sixties perfection by Aïda Turturro, returns in time to side with the monstrous Livia (Nancy Marchand), whose motherliness has not been in the least improved by hospitalization. What more could you possibly need to know, except that you ought to be there early for the Sinatra flashback… . Likewise a known quality, back for six more riveting hours on public television, is Touching Evil (Thursdays, starting January 13; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13). Gloomy, neurotic, driven Robson Green and Nicola Walker are back as elite London police detectives hunting serial killers who steal Albanian children, scalp young women after posting warnings to tabloid reporters on the World Wide Web, and lobotomize do-gooders who came back from war crimes in Bosnia with horrific dreams.
Which brings me to the first of two agonizing documentaries. Srebrenica: A Cry From the Grave (Monday, January 17; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13), produced and directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Bill Moyers, leads us step-by-obscene-step to the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men by Serb soldiers in July 1995, in spite of the presence of a Dutch battalion of United Nations “peacekeepers.” We hear from eyewitnesses, relatives, diplomats, war-crimes tribunal prosecutors, and even General Ratko Mladic himself (“The moment has come to take revenge on the Muslims in this place”) because everybody seemed to have a camcorder, if not a conscience. You have read about Srebrenica; you may even have seen fleeting footage on the nightly news; but nothing prepares you for the digging up of rotting corpses, the bones and skulls, the drills and saws, of this measured but still brutal autopsy.
In the other agonizing documentary of the week, Ofra Bikel is back on Frontline with more bad news in The Case for Innocence (Tuesday, January 11; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13), an account of how come advances in DNA testing that make it possible to determine, biologically, whether prisoners accused of crimes like rape and murder are in fact guilty have nevertheless failed to get innocent people out of prison. Given what Bikel hears from the usual impatient prosecutors (“Too late!”) and the materials she’s gathered from Texas, Virginia, and Louisiana, it’s hard not to conclude that a prosecutorial political culture doesn’t really care about new evidence. If they were guilty then, they are still guilty now, if not of the crime they were convicted for committing then probably something else. The system, resorting surprisingly often in rape cases to what one attorney calls “the theory of the unindicted co-ejaculator,” need only satisfy its own sense of symmetry, like the harrow in Kafka.