Not Remotely Controlled

Notes on Television


By Lee Siegel

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Television has taken firm hold of American life ever since the first flickering images replaced the disembodied voices innocently crackling from the radio. Ever present and evolving, television thrives at the crossroads of commerce, art, and entertainment. In Not Remotely Controlled cultural critic Lee Siegel collects his reportage and musings on this most hybrid medium. Whether chronicling the history of the “cop” drama, revealing the inherent irony in Donald Trump’s character on “The Apprentice,” or shedding light on those unheralded gems that Neilsen ratings swept away prematurely, Siegel gives each episode, series, or documentary the attention and respect usually reserved for high-art and dusty literature. Going far beyond mere pans and praise, Siegel has given long-overdue attention to America’s most pervasive art form: television.


Not Remotely Controlled

Notes on Television


For Janet Malcolm


The reviews and essays in this book originally appeared in the New Republic, where I served as the magazine’s television critic from 2003 to 2006, writing essays for the print magazine and shorter, weekly pieces for the New Republic online. One of the people who thought profoundly about television was the New Republic’s first television critic, Paul Goodman. In an essay on TV that appeared in the magazine in January 1963, Goodman wrote:

This is too beautiful a medium to be thrown away. . . . It offers opportunities for the frequent spontaneous emerging of plastic and poetic invention, the rapid dissemination of radical ideas, many kinds of training and instruction, . . . [The networks cannot get in] touch with the real, for they are not set up for that. It is evident that the present top-down decision-makers have no notion of whatever a free medium is. The best is simply to get rid of them, break up the networks by a complete new deal in the franchises, and decentralize control as much as possible. . . .

Goodman’s prescience was extraordinary since this “complete new deal” is nearly exactly what the cable revolution created. What we have on television now is an overlap of eras. The advertising-hungry networks exist like amphibians alongside subscription-hungry cable channels that are beginning to walk upright, on two legs. This peculiar time-warp is one complication facing the television critic.

Another is that whether you are tuned into CBS or HBO, you are still watching the unique entity known as TV. No form or medium—in the realm of either art or diversion—has television’s consequential intimacy, and its alarming immediacy, and its seeming seamlessness with reality. If television is a miracle of pleasure and information it is also an ongoing emergency in consciousness. Being a television critic, therefore, is not like being any other kind of critic.

The marketing people are going to kill me when they read the following, but if you’ve picked up this book looking for straightforward television reviews, you’re going to be disappointed. Television inspires me to talk about a lot of things outside television. That is the nature of the glowing, flickering beast. Television as an object of critical discrimination is very different from the “thick” expressions of a poem, a novel, a painting, a serious biography. They are so rich with dense layers of meaning and structure that you have a great deal of work to do before you can start talking about the world outside them. But a television show, no matter what form it takes, is deliciously thin. Its nature has been so stretched in different artistic, cultural, social, economic and commercial directions that you can dive right through the small screen into the world outside it. If, that is, the world doesn’t come striding through the glass to you first.

In other words, television’s unreality can be very real indeed. You have only to pay it the attention it deserves.

1 Why Cop Shows
Are Eternal

He is there, David Caruso, week after week, with his red hair and narrow eyes and bitter irony, aided by the other CSI: Crime Scene Investigation officers, picking up the pieces of incredible violence and following them back, like Hansel in the asphalt jungle—though he follows computerized simulations of entry wounds, not pieces of bread—to the deformative trauma that shattered a life; and there is Jerry Orbach, a nice Jewish actor playing a nice half-Jewish cop, as Lenny in Law & Order, who hates the scumbags with matter-of-fact irony and feels for the helpless unlucky guys driven beyond the law to defend themselves; and there is Vic in The Shield, brutal, good-hearted, and corrupt, way behind CSI in technology, and way beyond Law & Order in psychology. And there are a lot of other guys, and also a few women, running around the tube with a badge and a gun. The proverbial complaint that there’s never a cop around when you need one may or may not be true, but there’s always a cop show around, whether you want it or not.

Here is a sample of the police dramas currently on television, both new shows and old: CSI,Without a Trace, Law & Order, 24, The Shield, a new Dragnet, The Division, Fastlane, Cops, The Sentinel, Streets of San Francisco, True Crime, Boomtown, The Wire, NYPD Blue, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, Miami Vice, U.S. Marshals, Hill Street Blues, Forever Knight. At any moment on American television, someone is either committing a crime or getting arrested, shooting or getting shot, chasing or being chased. There is even a show called Animal Cops, which—alas—is not about animals empowered by the state to pursue and apprehend bad animals (“Up against the wall! Spread your legs! Now spread your other legs!”). This particular brainstorm depicts real cops pursuing and apprehending miscreant schnauzers and so forth.

And in the unlikely event that you tire of any of the countless television series about the police, you can flip between cop movies and cop shows—between Training Day, in which a good cop battles a corrupt cop, and The Shield, in which good cops become bad cops while battling to remain good; or between the wildly successful black-cop and white-cop teams in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard with a Vengeance (where Samuel L. Jackson isn’t a cop but acts like one) and the current incarnation of Law & Order, whose writers have given Lenny a new black partner. The configurations are the same; only the names have been changed to protect against the hypercritical. On the big screen and the small, cops enthrall us the way gods and demigods captured the imaginations of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Like the demigods of mythological yore, like Achilles with his divinely wrought shield, cops on television—they also have shields—occupy a hybrid, liminal realm. They are half ordinary citizens constrained by laws, customs, and convention, and half divinities, free to exert their will, to thwart someone else’s, to punish and to kill, to set matters straight: that is, they are glamorously unconstrained by laws, customs, and conventions. When you sit for an hour in a traffic jam and fantasize about taking the motorcycle away from the guy ahead of you and tearing straight up between the lanes, you are fantasizing about being a cop.

Of course, all the subliminal energy packed into the figure of the cop has a strong symbolic dimension. The dramatic, untrammeled doings of television cops appeal to the American self, with its daydream of a dramatic, untrammeled existence: television cops represent the fantastic consummation of the American promise of radical individualism. They seem simultaneously to have their way and to possess the power to keep other people from achieving theirs. The power offered by a plastic card with a big line of credit is half like the power represented by a badge.

The cop who goes too far in battling his conventional or dumb or corrupt superiors, who themselves have gone too far; or who passes beyond legal boundaries while fighting a conventional or dumb or corrupt system that has exceeded all legal boundaries; or who slugs it out with bad guys just as unconstrained by law, custom, or convention as he is; or who wrestles with his own demons; or who finds himself lost and ineffectual in that realm where unthinking exercise of the will can alienate the object of desire (the realm of romantic love)—it is not too grandiose to say that the image of the American cop embodies the perpetual American dilemma: how far can individual freedom go before one person’s freedom becomes another person’s crisis?

That conundrum has a long history. In American pop culture, there was always the good outsider sheriff squaring off against the bad insider sheriff—Wyatt Earp; Gary Cooper in High Noon—or the good stranger vanquishing the established authorities that had become villainous, as in Shane (which means “beautiful” in Yiddish—did its Jewish writer do that on purpose?). But though the good outsiders and strangers often had complex natures—like Shane himself, whose noble motives were entangled with his desire for the wife of another good man—they usually remained incontestably good. Film noir, with its morally ambiguous heroes, only occasionally influenced the cinematic image of the Western lawman.

Matters were even more clear-cut on television, where after World War II the Western kept bad guys and good guys as distinct from one another as the city was from the suburbs. During the postwar exodus from urban centers, morally reassuring Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, meant to be watched by the whole family, catered to the suburban imagination just as all those morally unsettling postwar film noirs, meant to be watched alone in a dark theater, appealed to the urban imagination. The cop shows of the time were even more black and white, as if these police series were as comforting as the sight of their black-and-white patrol cars. Shows such as the old Dragnet and Adam-12 portrayed law-enforcement figures unobstructed by complex natures or dubious superiors. A comedy police show would be inconceivable now, but back then you had series like Car 54, Where Are You?—on cable you can still catch the reruns, which seem like prehistoric cave paintings—and Mayberry RFD, humorous cop shows featuring bumbling policemen akin to West Side Story’s Officer Krupke. Even the serious police dramas of the time, viewed now, seem to have a comic spirit animating their simple divisions between good and bad.

We have all heard about how the Vietnam War, and the 1960s, and the race riots, and Watergate, changed popular culture; how they made the movies, and the television, and the songs, and the musicals, more cynical, more ambiguous, more “real” about buried motives and hidden conduct. Indeed, the chief cause of reality television is that in our commercial society people have cynically come to associate artistic pretense with entrepreneurial misrepresentation; and as popular art has absorbed this skepticism of pretense and become more ironic about itself, people have come to suspect any strain of sincerity in actual life. Cop shows belatedly reflected the social and cultural movement toward “the real.” In the early 1990s, NYPD Blue revolutionized television cops by dramatizing their inner lives and depicting cops torn by anger, and alcoholism, and lust, and infidelity. Though these figures remained for the most part on the right side of the law, they enacted private transgressions that were at the heart of the public crimes they were dedicated to investigating.

It might seem that with this riveting and beautifully done series, television cops had become more like real cops, more like actual life. Yet since most people’s perception of the police is the simple one of men and women who really are there to serve and to protect, the cardboard cops of Adam-12 and the old Dragnet are closer to real life than NYPD Blue’s dramatic, exciting, conflicted cops. For the black or Hispanic kid being brutalized by a cop, the hackneyed simplicity of the good cop gone bad is obviously more real than the romantic image of authority figures tormented by the burden of their jobs. Justin Volpe, the cop now serving time for torturing Abner Louima, is Joe Friday turned on his head.

Rather than bringing the viewer closer to actual cops, with their (to the ordinary citizen) obscure and unknowable inner lives, NYPD Blue ended up making these half-divine figures of authority—the authority to interrupt a life, or the authority to take a life—transparent and comprehensible. The show simultaneously demystified them and made them unreal. It glamorized sordidness rather than exposing it. And it made the revelation of psychological forces into just another type of information.With its portrayal of cops who are just as screwed up as the rest of us, but who, like the rest of us, still get up in the morning and do their jobs, NYPD Blue made mysterious quasi-divinities rationally apprehendable.

Three different types of police shows grew out of NYPD Blue. The first is the simple good guy/bad guy police show like the new Dragnet, which is really the old Dragnet with more vicious crimes; and Law & Order, where the inner lives of Lenny (who, we learn, lost his daughter to drugs) and his partner obtrude tastefully on the plots, which are almost always complex and intelligent and wholly absorbing.

The second type is the gritty police series, which goes even further than NYPD Blue in portraying cops as torn, conflicted, gone rotten, and in extremis. There aren’t many of these: 24 has some raw, ambiguous moments, and so does The Wire, and so did The Beat, the last now defunct. The raw police show par excellence is The Shield, a series that has remarkably shorn itself of glamour and romanticism. Interestingly, the “reality” police show, Cops, which seems to be on cable twenty-four hours a day, is closer to the old simplistic police dramas than to something like The Shield, since its policemen always get their culprit and we never see corrupt, tormented, or brutal cops.What the gritty police shows share with Cops is the shaky, hand-held camera-work, one of the few romantic elements of The Shield and the most down-to-earth feature of Cops.

The other, and far more plentiful, species of cop show took from NYPD Blue its style of making the cop, suspended between mortal and immortal realms, rationally knowable. For in the end, the latter’s Andy Sipowicz’s drinking, and his violence, and his unhappiness amplified the perception of him as a figure who could enforce his will despite the obstructions to his will. His weaknesses empowered him; the disclosure of his weaknesses empowered the viewer. The more explicit the revelation of what motivated him, the more familiar and predictable he became as a person. And this psychological omniscience of NYPD Blue’s scriptwriters seems to have passed into the minds of CSI ’s and Without a Trace’s investigators, who couple their psychological mastery with technological fluency.

When you watch CSI orWithout a Trace, you are enjoying the fruits of NYPD Blue’s fantasy of omniscience. There is very little violence on these shows, which already distinguishes them from a television universe where a series like Oz, set in a prison, has pushed the boundaries of graphic violence about as far as they can go on television. CSI ’s cops, though they carry highly visible, oversize guns on their hips—as if to compensate for the show’s lack of violence—catch their criminals by means of forensics and various kinds of technology. Such violence as there is the show enacts through the CSI investigators’ graphic computer simulations of knives penetrating skin, tissue,muscle, and bone. It’s where Sherlock Holmes meets Popeye Doyle. Not the least of the show’s enthrallments is the illusion it offers that by imagining and then rationalizing the worst, the worst will never happen.

Without a Trace, in which detectives piece together the puzzle of a life to find missing persons, is more cerebral and more subdued, yet the series also has a consoling faith in the ability of its cops to uncover the truth, always accurately, in this case by deciphering the meaning of a pause in conversation or a shift in someone’s glance. Law & Order takes a different tack. By dividing the program into police show (first half) and courtroom drama that includes the categorization of information about the crime (second half), it offers a complete spectacle of the rationalization of the irrational.

While The Shield and the other gritty police shows enact the old drama of the American will enmeshed in its paradoxical freedoms, CSI, and Without a Trace, have submerged that drama in the world of the video game and the Internet, where the technology-created culture of engaged isolation meets the old-time crime drama. NYPD Blue’s moral ambiguities have become the hard new scientific certainties. A gritty, morally shadowy drama such as The Shield is really a throwback to a soft bygone humanistic complexity.

The most significant thing about these shows, particularly CSI, is that they fuse the crime drama with the medical drama. The body is the most intimate, and potentially the most threatening, dimension of a person’s existence. In CSI ’s forensic obsession with bodies—you can also flip to the fact-based series Forensic Files—viewers can be held rapt and also reassured that no wound, no invasion of the body is, in the end, fatal.

For though CSI is an innovative (as they say) police show, it has also pushed the medical drama into a new phase. The doctors on ER race to save a person’s life. The cops on CSI, fiber by fiber, semen stain by semen stain, wound by wound, work to capture the perpetrator of the fatal blow, and thus, by finding the agent of the formative wound, they do not save a person’s life—they resurrect a person from the dead. In a similar way, the detectives on Without a Trace redeem a person from the ranks of the missing.

As American society goes, so goes the American crime drama. If ever there were shows that expressed our solitary, computer-riveted sense of being there but not being there, of being mysteriously injured or depressed yet feeling healthy and optimistic, of being helpless to influence events but feeling strangely that we are powerful enough to do so, they are these raw, entertaining, gripping, utterly delusive fantasies of transparency and control.

MARCH 31, 2003

2 The New Kojak

In the late 1970s, when the bald, blatantly ethnic Telly Savalas played tough, compassionate Kojak in the television police show of that name, New York was in the doldrums. Since 1958, when Naked City aired—the first television cop series to be set in New York—much had changed. The city was economically depressed. Crime rates were soaring. Racial tension ran to skin-crawling highs, reaching a crescendo—a paradigm shift, as it were—in 1987 in the case of Tawana Brawley, a young black girl who falsely accused six white men, one of them a law-enforcement officer, of raping her. The recession induced by the vast expenditures of the Vietnam War had caused an enormous crisis. The liberal “idealism” in foreign policy that had created the catastrophe in Southeast Asia had receded along with the economy and left the liberal idealism that still guided the country’s social policies to take the fall. And no city in the country was as liberal in its social attitudes as New York.

So a new mayor named Ed Koch swept into office on the Democratic ticket and started talking tough, which laid the groundwork for Rudy Giuliani, who did tough. The Jewish, unmarried, and seemingly romantically unattached Koch accentuated rather than played down what some people might have construed as his otherness. Back then, the media was less prosecutorial. Koch was a tummler, a clown, a kind of Allen Ginsberg in political clothing.He had come out of the progressive wing of the city’s Democratic Party, and his headquarters early in his political career were in Greenwich Village, on the corner ofWest Fourth and Seventh Avenue—in the heart, that is, of New York’s artistic/bohemian precincts. There was some element of camp in Koch’s public persona, and behind it a hardness and impatience, and behind that even a kind of wry sadness.

All these layers were encased in a seemingly impregnable egotism. As the city grew more and more depressed, Koch inflated his ego to larger and larger proportions. Inflation, in fact, became public and economic policy. He and his banker-prince, Felix Rohatyn, borrowed more and more money, slowly raising the city out of its slough—in much the same way as Ginsberg and others had tried to levitate the Pentagon a decade before. That whole epoch in New York had a bloated surreality: the mayor puffing himself out; he and his banker floating bonds on the thin air of trust and taking out loan after loan; the city’s bankers venturing, junk-bonding, and leveraging; and behind it all, a massive media campaign to sell New York—“I ♥ New York”—as the best investment, the capital of the world, the “Big Apple,” a bite of which would give you worldliness, secret thrills, and a permanent buoyancy instead of the fabled Fall. Everyone was wafting about on the collective construction of a spotless, shining self-conception fabricated out of their depressed sense of a faltering environment.

Telly Savalas’ Greek American New York City police detective was, like Koch, bald (though Savalas liked to leak to the press through his publicists that he shaved his head and could thrust upward a virile tract of hair anytime he wanted to). He was, like Koch, brash, brassy, wisecracking, buoyant, irrepressible. Like Koch, he was unabashedly ethnic. Both men cultivated personas that were an ad-man’s dream of “New York.”Koch liked to theatrically ask his constituents during his public appearances: “How’m I doin’?” Kojak liked to cockily ask, “Who loves ya baby?” (We love New York!) Both men—rather, both fabricated characters—gave the impression that they could handle any situation, that fighting social malaise and crime was really a matter of style more than anything else, and that there was a secret source of their invincible confidence that no one would ever know. For Koch, its traces lay perhaps in the fact that he always appeared in shirtsleeves; for Savalas’ Kojak, the fedora seemed to hold the key to his bravado. Not to mention the lollipops that he liked to suck on and hand out to people, colorful pacifiers that he said he needed to quit smoking but that hinted at a dark rage in their absence, and also looked like harmless candy caricatures of bludgeons.

What’s most significant about the current revival of Kojak —a show so boring that it makes you angry at yourself for nodding through murders and beatings—is its revelation of cultural distance. Today, the Democratic Party headquarters in Greenwich Village that Koch worked out of at the beginning of his career is a nail salon. And, indeed, this new Kojak is more polished than its predecessor ever was. Its claws are sharper, too. Savalas’ Kojak was tough, but for the most part he stuck to the straight and narrow. Ving Rhames’ Kojak, like so many other detectives on TV nowadays—as well as the counterterrorist types on 24—tortures suspects in custody and generally pushes people around, and members of his team routinely remove evidence from people’s apartments without warrants.


On Sale
Aug 1, 2007
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Lee Siegel

About the Author

Lee Siegel is a renowned critic and essayist whose writing appears in Harper’s, the New Republic, Time, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, among other publications. He received the 2002 National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is the author of Falling Upwards. Siegel is a senior editor at the New Republic. He lives with his wife and child in New York City.

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