The odd light that ignites passions for products but obscures the true nature of people, ideas and events. Such is the damning assessment of television in Mark Crispin Miller’s “Boxed In: The Culture of TV,” a piercing collection of essays primarily focusing on Miller’s judgment of television as a dangerous, dim view.
Indeed, as Miller sees TV, whether watching a 30-minute sitcom or 60-second ad, all is one seamless commercial, a relentless pitch to buy, baby, buy, a jet-age juggernaut lubed, oiled, and soundlessly crushing our souls while squeezing our wallets.
In an intro to “Boxed In,” Miller, associate professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University, warns that “TV has turned the cultural atmosphere into one big ad . . . .” He further says that “critical appraisals” addressing TV’s goodness or badness miss the point. For in the end, television’s raison d’etre is to service the ad man as an “effective corporate instrument, whose sole purpose--as its executives will tell you--is to sell you to the advertisers. . . .”
“Boxed In” argues this thesis in detail. A piece titled “Massa, Come Home” dissects an ad geared to getting us to holiday in Jamaica, a TV spot that Miller analyzes as a vile bit of manipulation playing to latent racism and unresolved yearnings to go back to a simpler time and a place called home. (“ ‘Home’ refers to an imagined past, a hazy paradisaical interlude that fell sometime between Reconstruction and the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan,” Miller observes.) An essay titled “Virtue, Inc.,” a savage little portrait of actor Ronald Reagan in his capstone role as President of the United States of Television, is the word picture equivalent of artist Robbie Conal’s poster renderings of Reagan as an atrophied, sclerotic, veined head. Making reference to Reagan’s performances on TV, Miller explains that the President’s frequent jerks, chuckles, shrugs, smiles and frowns are all televisual essentials, shtick needed to get an audience to buy what it sees. Miller further notes that the President ". . . tends to lose his charm when he comes to rest.” And during these ". . . terrifying moments of repose, all the boyishness drains out of him, and he suddenly starts looking like an anaconda, with his beady eyes and flat lipless head.”
In addition to Reagan, others “Millerized” include “Family Feud’s” original host Richard Dawson (“We see at once that Dawson is no typical M.C., not an unctuous, chortling ‘host,’ beaming like a salesman, but rather comes on with the boozy self-possession of a weathered libertine”), Bill Cosby (“With its little smile, the lips pursed tight, eyes opened wide, eyebrows raised high, that dark face shines toward us like the white flag of surrender--a desperate look that no suburban TV Dad of yesteryear would ever have put on, and one that millions of Americans today find indispensable”) and Jerry Lewis (“Watching Jerry Lewis run his telethon is a nerve-racking thrill, like watching an agitated schizophrenic conduct a heated group discussion”).
Miller also lifts his lance against whole domains of pop culture. Rock music, once the sound of youthful rebellion, is, in Miller’s opinion, an infirm musical form entranced by the echo of its gilded corporate shackles, shuffling to the lucrative lyrics of moribund persecution and estrangement fantasies.
In a section headed “The Promise of Cinema,” Miller assays a bunch of star bios published during the last several years, lays waste to Joan Mellen’s “Big Bad Wolves” feminist critique of movie making, and offers some well-chosen words on Alfred Hitchcock as motion-picture artist nonpareil versus “the master of suspense” label hitched on Hitch by the film Establishment. (Miller’s nearly scene-by-scene recitation/interpretation of “Suspicion” makes for stimulating reading but seems out of place in this volume.)
Overall, Miller presents a cleverly worded condemnation of TV media-ocrity, a technology of programming giving rise to a place where, as T. S. Eliot says of hell, there is nothing to escape from or escape to. Moreover, Miller displays admirable pluck in railing against shopworn goods sold as art, “product” palmed off as high-minded aesthetics.
Yet after reading “Boxed In,” one also comes away reminded of H. L. Mencken’s quip that criticism is prejudice made plausible. An ebullient spitefulness often bubbles to the surface in Miller’s work, as when he characterizes dialogue on “Hill Street Blues” as ". . . like what you’d overhear in a singles bar for retarded television writers.” Moreover, Miller commits the same offenses that, in his opinion, those “aging wise guys” (e.g. Bruce Willis, David Letterman) stand guilty of. Laced throughout “Boxed In” is “a corrosive cynicism” that posits ridicule for insight, gleeful scorn for frank opinion. When Miller describes Caspar Weinberger and Donald Regan looking ". . . as if their one desire in life is to repossess your house,” we get the joke but at the expense of the point.
More baffling is Miller’s denunciation of Sam Donaldson for an on-air characterization of President Reagan as “warm” and “amiable,” since, in Miller’s view, such talk results in Reagan becoming ". . . warm and amiable, even if he isn’t.” While one can surely quibble with whether a TV newsman should publicly broadcast such views, Donaldson’s description is a matter of experience. That is, Donaldson is recounting his face-to-face encounters with the President. And though it displeases Miller, fact is, Sam Donaldson finds Ronald Reagan, at least off-screen, a genial fellow.
Though one can take issue with Miller on particulars, his book remains essential reading. “Boxed In” is a commanding display of cultural criticism, a passionately issued cry for the sleeper to awake. Setting aside the “rare exceptions” of “art on TV,” Miller alerts us to the resonant emptiness of television, an invention offering itself as “an escape” but which in truth, is no exit past, present, future. On TV, there’s only Everlasting Now. Whereas once upon a time--before two Frenchmen, Rignoux and Fouriner, sent a crude moving image over wires in 1906--we had to battle the beast within. The monster is now outside us, self-terrorized and fear-haunted, unfathomable and unknowable. Yes, indeed, in this age of the senses and not of the mind, the prerecorded “show” must go on simply because it must.