March 2007

Conversations in front of the television

By Gail Binkly

My husband and I have an ongoing argument about television programming. I say it was better in the old days; David says it’s better today. He believes the diversity of offerings , plus the sophistication of special effects and script-writing, are a vast improvement over the Days of Yore. Plus, today you can watch things from the past as well as the present, thanks to nostalgia channels such as Nick at Night.

I, however, find that theory lacking.

I would like to be able to say we never watch television at all. Many of our friends don’t even own TV sets; some shrink from even touching one, as if to do so would mean contracting some flesh-eating illness.

But though we try to remain intellectually pure, in our old age we find there are nights when we lack the energy or wit to forge an intelligent conversation or even to take up needlepoint. So we eat supper, feed the pets, flee the frosty lower realms of the house to the warm master bedroom upstairs, and turn on the tube (a modest 27-inch set).

I look through the TV listings.

“Here’s what’s on,” I say. “Beauty and the Geek. ‘Spawn,’ a movie, two stars, ‘a dead man comes back from hell to take revenge on his killer.’ ‘Wrong Turns,’ two stars, ‘inbred cannibals on a rampage terrorize stranded motorists.’”

“Inbred ones are the worst kind,” David says.

Andy Griffith, Growing Pains, Star Trek the Next Generation, M*A*S*H.”

“See what I mean? You can watch all the old shows you want on TV today.”

“Not Kung Fu,” I point out. “Let’s watch that.”

A few months ago, at a clearance sale in Colorado Springs, I picked up a DVD set of the complete episodes of Kung Fu, a series I greatly enjoyed in my youth. The hero is a half-Chinese expatriate, played by David Carradine, wandering through the Old West. (“Why does everybody call him a Chinaman when he’s obviously white?” David asks. “Haven’t you ever heard of the willing suspension of disbelief?” I snap.)

Trained as a Shaolin priest, Kwai Chang Caine espouses a philosophy of pacifism and harmony with all living things. He is constantly running into thieves, racists, murderers and allaround thugs, but greets them with a humble smile and an easy calm.

Sure, once in a while he is forced to use his powerful kung-fu skills, but mostly the program emphasizes the foolishness of vengeance, anger and conflict. And it’s probably the only prime-time TV show ever to offer a vegetarian as its protagonist. These charms are lost on David, however.

“Is it going to be another episode where he solves things through nonviolent means?” he asks.

“Of course!” I say. “They’re all like that.”

“But I want to see some space fighting.”

“There isn’t any on right now.”

“What about Next Generation?

“It’s the one where Picard goes home to France.”

David groans.

“You realize this means there’s no hope for mankind,” I say sadly. “If you, an ardent foe of war and violence, can’t enjoy a show about non-violence —” “OK, OK,” he sighs.

But 10 or 15 minutes into the program, when Caine commences saying something like, “Let your soul be as light as a feather,” David’s head falls to one side and he begins to snore. He has Kung Fu narcolepsy.

When the show ends, I switch on Sex and the City. Soon David’s eyes are open again.

“I’ve seen this one before,” he complains, as Samantha ogles a young stud. That is patently untrue, because he has never watched an episode of Sex and the City.

“Look,” I say, “I watch science fiction, football and the news. Surely I can watch a chick-type show once in a while.” He grits his teeth, so I switch channels.

A crime show is on. A voluptuous woman is chained in a garage while dogs in a pen slaver to tear her apart.

“Modern crime shows are awful!” I say. “They just try to outdo each other in shock value. People are chopped up in butcher shops, burned, raped, buried alive in coffins — Hawaii Five- O was tame compared to this stuff.”

“How about MSNBC?” David asks hopefully.

“If I hear one more discussion about whether Hillary or Barack is going to get the nomination, or what’s the matter with Britney Spears, I’ll shave my own hair off.”

We try CNN. They’re running a news segment on an exclusive club where men who make at least $100,000 per year (more if they’re old) can hook up with young, gorgeous women.

“What are poor men and non-gorgeous women supposed to do?” I ask.

“They have to marry someone they actually like,” David says.

A commercial comes on. “See?” I say. “This is another way modern TV is worse! The FCC has loosened the regulations so much that a one-hour show is half commercials. And they’re more obnoxious than the old ones, too.”

“What do you think are the 10 worst ads?” David asks musingly.

“Anything with talking mucus or talking toe fungus,” I reply. “And there’s one now with talking boogers. At least they were blobs in someone’s nasal passage blocking the entrance.”

“What’s next?” David ruminates. “Talking feces?”


“I think the worst one is where life is compared to a parking meter,” he says. “Some old woman says, ‘I wish I could put in a coin and get more time.’ Great Scott!”

“I hate ads where food talks,” I say. “Like chickens and cows talking about being nuggets.”

“Or shrimp eating popcorn shrimp.”

“And that one where the woman shrieks, ‘Look at me! I’m a Size 2!’ Is that her only accomplishment in life?”

Mesmerized, we watch an ad about bladder control in which animated water balloons bounce around a street.

“What’s supposed to be inside those balloons, anyway?” David asks.

I rise. “You know, I have a videotape of the AFC playoff game from January 5, 1992. Houston vs. Denver. One of Elway’s greatest comebacks.”

“Go get it!” David cries.

As we watch David Treadwell kick off and Warren Moon trot onto the field, David turns to me and smiles.

“Old shows really are the best, aren’t they?” he says.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.