Times Arts Editor

My annual rite of spring is in fact a read of spring. I’m one of the judges--it’s no secret--of the Humanitas Awards, given each year to the writers of television dramas that best reflect human values.

And so again for the last several days I’ve been up to my eyebrows in scripts, 44 of them, chosen by a preliminary panel of readers from the nearly 300 submitted.

This spring, even more than in previous years, I have some small intimation of what it must be like for a priest hearing confessions, or a psychiatrist attending the couch.

Human values mean human problems; and although hope or tranquil acceptance finally outpoints despair in every scripted case, the litany of griefs large and small is impressive, not to say overwhelming, taken in so large a dose.

I made a rough list of the crises confronted. It included teen-age alcoholism, teen-age drug addiction, teen-age pregnancy, teen-age rebellion in general, bereavement (several times), blindness, deafness, dyslexia, malfunctioning family relationships in several forms, aging as experienced by the elderly and by their children, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, rape, capital punishment, hijacking, muscular dystrophy, false incarceration, child-stealing, plus an assortment of real if subtler problems of honesty, social responsibility and personal priorities.


I’m tempted to say, with slight irony, that those were just the sitcoms. That’s not true, of course, but what is true is that even the half-hour shows, lighthearted as they may be, find ways to confront issues of substance.

The net editorial time on a half-hour show is something like 24 minutes at best, a murderously difficult challenge for the writers. Even when the characters have been defined over several weeks or several seasons, as with “MASH” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in years past, you don’t have a lot of time to get deep into life-and-death issues. But it is surprising and encouraging to find that even the sitcoms can suggest that life is not simply a bowl of quippy frivolities.

As one of several judges on both coasts voting by mail or phone, I have no idea what the finalists will be. Our script readings will produce three finalists each in the half-hour, hour and 90-minutes-or-more categories. Those nine shows will then be viewed by the judges to produce the winners, to be announced this year on June 19.

But what is impressive about the stack of scripts I’ve just been through is the evidence they provide of television’s continuing growth, its subtlety, maturity and courage as a teller of stories with substance.

It is not quite enough to say that some of the topics have exploitable news value. Some of the shows are too strong and unyielding to hold audiences merely in search of titillating shocks.

The power and the immediacy of the medium have been obvious from its earliest days, when the world was all black and white and even the test pattern was hypnotically interesting.

Whenever television has flexed its muscles, covering tragedies and triumphs--doing specials that reflect the world at its most artful--we have been freshly reminded what a life-shaping phenomenon that box in the living room is.

Admitting all that’s still witlessly and spectacularly violent on television, acknowledging all the sex-strewn and soapy chronicles of the fictional rich, all the diversionary nonsense, the proof is there that mainline television is also deploying its powers positively and well, and with surprising frequency.

The scripts represent, I suppose, about 45 hours of television time, a drop in the bucket even if you only measure them against a year’s worth of network prime time. Yet those hours are events, enriched by credible characters coping with recognizable and often universal human dilemmas.

The roundness and depth of the characters in the best of the movie-length dramas seemed to me to be exceptional, contradicting the notion that the TV movie is inevitably an inferior form. It’s in fact no longer quite so dismissive to say of a theatrical film that it’s only television fare. Motion pictures, in their growing non-confrontational timidity, might be glad to have the emotional force of some of the television work.

What finally seemed terrifically impressive was that--again, talking of the best of the work--there were no mandatory, enforced happy endings. Incurable diseases and irreversible conditions were not shown or suggested to be otherwise. The messages in those situations were of understanding, acceptance and reconciliation--and by strong implication a freshened gratitude for whatever blessings there are in your life.

That also reflects a coming of age, for the medium and for the viewer.