Helen Chappell - March 08 

At the Bottom of the Channel


Helen Chappell

     Do you like television as much as I do? Come on, admit it, you know you do. Even if you teeter on your stiletto heels at cocktail parties and tell people you only watch nature documentaries on PBS, you know, in your heart of hearts, that you’ve stayed home from some event so you wouldn’t miss Grey’s Anatomy. And you could, if threatened with torture, recite all the terrible things Bree’s done on Desperate Housewives.
      As I scribble this, the Screen Writers Guild has been on strike for several months, and when you read this a couple of months from now, there is no indication the strike will be over. Basically, what this means is reruns and reality shows are the main fare.
      And if you’re like me, reality shows confuse you, when they don’t fill you with ennui. They all seem to be populated with the same ten blondes, about twenty years old, about size 2, who all look, talk and act exactly alike. The guys are all dark, with scruffy haircuts and a three-day growth of beard, and they are also interchangeable. It’s as if the entertainment industry cloned them all. The girls are all named Lauren, and the boys are all Joshua, and beyond that, you couldn’t care less how they crash and burn in front of the cameras, whether they’re trying to become America’s next secretary of state or top spokesmodel, not that there’s much difference between the two in TVLand.
      With so much broadcast awfulness, it’s time to check out what’s happening elsewhere for your viewing entertainment on those 100 cable channels you never watch.
      I watch so you don’t have to, and believe me, it’s a tough job, but someone has to prove the late Newton Minnow right about that vast wasteland of cable. So you don’t have to surf into the triple digits, I did. And you’re not missing much. But desperate times require desperate measures, so here, in a capsule, is what’s down there.
      First, we have the religious network. This seems to consist mostly of enormous-haired people who want your money so they personally can get you right with Jesus. You can tell they want your money because a phone number is always on the crawl at the bottom of the screen, where you can call and someone will take your credit card number. All of them, men and women alike, seem to have huge hairdos tinted purple, a lot of make-up and all polyester wardrobes.
I’m not sure what this has to do with faith, but they seem to think there’s a connection.
      We surf on through those obscure sports channels. Here you can learn how to stuff and mount a bobcat, in the sort of graphic detail that would put CSI off the air. Since my likelihood of running into a bobcat is nil, and it would be more likely the bobcat would stuff and mount me, I move on to a show where a bunch of guys are sitting around talking about their Ferraris. That’s the whole show. Ferrari owners talking about their cars. No one even drives one of these magnificent automobiles, at least on the air where we can live vicariously.
      I think my personal favorite of these testosterone-challenged offerings is the one I watched where several retired ball players sat around and talked about everything but Major League Baseball. I was hoping for some insight into the Hall of Famers’ legendary careers, but no go. I think that was the Crushing Disappointment Channel.
      We will not discuss a channel devoted entirely to golf. Golf may be a great sport to actually play, but nothing is more soul crushing than watching a four-year-old game being replayed.
      There’s a lot for the ladies to see, too. One channel is devoted entirely to what the industry calls the “womjep.” For civilians, that’s the “woman in jeopardy” genre. An average womjep movie is made for TV, and generally involves Meredith Baxter Birney or Nancy McKeon obviously marrying a guy with a big secret. He’s either a bluebeard, a bigamist or a wife beater. Which they never find out until It’s Too Late. If they had figured it out fifteen minutes into the film, like the audience, there wouldn’t be a movie, or a thrilling denouement where they escape their abuser just in time, usually aided by the hot, sexy cop who’s been tracking the deviant spouse. A steady diet of women as victims gets old mighty fast for me.
      If you want something lighter and puffed up with a healthy dose of schadenfreude, there are unreality shows about hairdressers exchanging salons for a week, siliconed and botoxed California housewives desperately hanging on to their youthful looks and their shallow husbands, and my favorite, a show about a prehistoric, menopausal supermodel who does mean things to model wanna-be’s.
      No victims here; these people volunteered for this abuse.
      Want to watch bland, boring couples look at three bland and boring houses, then choose one to buy? We’ve got your show right here, on a channel wedged between the weirdness that is English language variety shows from the People’s Republic of China and what seems to be the All Infomercial All the Time channel. Perfect for people who want to make someone else rich by buying their DVD’s on getting rich and cosmetics endorsed by faded soap stars. Honestly, I have no idea what this channel is about. Like most of them, it seems to have a garbled series of initials for a name, but don’t ask me what it stands for. This low on the spectrum, the budget doesn’t allow them to buy a name for their channel.
      Me? I’ll watch anything where Egyptology Czar Zahi Hawass opens a tomb or unwraps a mummy. Or anything with a mummy. I love mummies. I could watch mummies all day. Sick puppy that I am, I love anything to do with archeology, forensic pathology, archetheus, a.k.a. The Giant Squid (“It was a squid, Holmes, not just any squid, but the monstrous giant squid of the Baskervilles!), or indeed any squids or marine life. If there’s a puffing, huffing undersea vent broiling away at the bottom of the Marianna Trench, I want to see it and its tubeworms and blind shrimp. Polar bears? I’m there, baby. I’m hooked on Turner Movie Classics, because I love old movies. Why would I want to watch some washed up has-been dancing when there’s a B-mystery movie starring Ann Sothern on? What’s the attraction of Simon Cowell, when there are 2,000-year-old shaman tombs being excavated in Siberia?
      You just have to know where to look for your reality, that’s all.