NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Just about everyone of us cries with Oprah, smirks along with Jon Stewart, laughs at the wacky antics on our favorite sitcoms and thrills to the race against time on "24." We mutter about what stinks and emerge from the depths of our La-Z Boys, convinced that TV critic has to be the easiest job in the world. Paid to watch TV? I could do that.
Writer Lee Siegel has sat through year's worth of dramas, sitcoms, reality and news as television critic for The New Republic. And he emerges to tell us that not just any idiot can get paid to watch the tube.
In a collection of his essays, Siegel analyses the history of the cop show and explains why it will never go away. He criticizes critical favorites: Jon Stewart and Larry David, compares Oprah to Picasso, and wonders where the medium and the country that stares at it may be headed.
Later on in the hour, the death of the immigration bill and how the bald eagle remade its image.
But first, we talk TV culture with Lee Siegel. Hands up everybody who tuned in to watch Paris Hilton on "Larry King" last night. If you have questions about the nature of the medium and why we watch what we watch, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.
Lee Siegel's book is called "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. LEE SIEGEL (TV critic, The New Republic; Author, "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television"): Oh it's nice to be here.
CONAN: And I assume that any respectable television critic had to be watching Paris Hilton and Larry King last night?
Mr. SIEGEL: Oh no. Well, you know, when I got off the TV beat a year ago, I did retire mostly from the television to spend more time with my family. But I didn't keep an eye on it, yes, although I did miss Paris Hilton. You know how that solitary figure confronted the tank in Tiananmen Square years ago, I thought not watching Paris Hilton would have a similar inspiring effect.
CONAN: I was interested, though, to read your many profiles of many of the different people on TV. Larry King is not among them.
Mr. SIEGEL: No. I - well, first of all, I couldn't write about everyone. I would have like to write about him. He's certainly a fascinating figure. He's become a kind of icon himself, of course. But I missed him.
CONAN: You missed him. Nevertheless, the article on Oprah Winfrey is both dizzying in its praise and interesting in its criticism.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think she inspires extreme emotions just as her show brings together extreme emotional states. She's a very complex figure.
CONAN: One of the things you write is there's a quiet revolution underway at Oprah's behest. And that the way she has managed to - make the black experience from slavery part of the everyday mainstream American experience.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yes. Well, first of all, I think, as I wrote in that essay that she's done more for race relations than any other, certainly any other figure in the world of entertainment, and almost as much maybe in her realm as Martin Luther King. You know, she tells stories about people in bondage to circumstances, to compulsions, the stories end with redemption; there's the quest for literacy with her book club - it's something like the slave narrative of the antebellum South.
CONAN: Do you really think George H. W. Bush, who presided over the spectacularly successful Gulf War, lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 because of a sagging economy? you write. No. It was Oprah, stupid. It was Oprah behind Clinton in '92, also in '96. It was Oprah behind George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 electoral shenanigans notwithstanding.
How does Oprah translate into support for Clinton and/or George Bush?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think we've gone from worshipping images of perfection to worshipping images of growth imperfection. I think reality TV is a rebellion against the images of perfection that we encounter everyday, in the fashion magazines and the silver screen and advertising. And I think Oprah, as you said, spearheaded this rebellion against these ideal images. I think people are very impatient with perfection.
I think that's part of the reason people were so hard on for Al Gore, you know? His poise was described as wooden. His patriarchal background was caricature and as a remoteness from ordinary life. And then, you get this bumbling idiot in the White House who I think was, in part, somehow responded to this rebellion against these ideal images because after all, the images are ideal. Well, we have - someone's tricking us, you know? It's just too good to be true.
Bush - he empowered our sense of seeing through pretense. It was all right there so it seemed.
CONAN: Yet Winfrey, as you conclude, is the expression of an immensely reassuring and inspiring message that has, without a doubt, help millions of people carry on with their lives. It is also an empty, cynical, icily, selfish outlook on life that undercuts its own positive energy at every turn.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yes. Well, I think on the one hand, you know, you sit before her, tube, as though sitting before - huddling before a fireplace, and you hear these warm stories of human redemption and inspiring examples of people overcoming adversity, etcetera. But at the same time, she'll shift from a mother, who returns home to find her children dead to a T-shirt contest, and she's steeped in materialist's values, and she makes everything look easy. She makes life look easy. And life isn't so easy.
CONAN: We're talking with Lee Siegel. His new book is called "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255 -excuse me, e-mail is email@example.com. Let's begin with Matthew(ph). Matthew is with us Chillicothe in Ohio.
MATTHEW (Caller): Hi. Yes. I really like your program and I'm a first time caller and I'm very excited to talk to your guest. I just had one question about "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." And I was wondering what he thought about how it has been affecting the youth of today and their views politically.
Mr. SIEGEL: I think - and I'm certainly in the minority and I'm going to have to watch myself when I leave the building after this…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SIEGEL: …broadcast. But I do think that it's having a kind of a paralyzing cynical effect. You know, Neal, you said at the beginning of the segment, we smirk when we watch Jon Stewart. It's not laughter. It's taunting. It's mockery. It's derision. And it just makes people feel that all political effort, or all effort in the public realm is a sham, a transparently hollow thing. I don't think there's anything inspiring about Stewart.
On the other hand, there was nothing politically inspiring about Lenny Bruce, but at least he was funny. He didn't just ride the news and show some little mash-ups of the "Six O'Clock Evening News."
CONAN: Well, a lot of people think Jon Stewart is funny.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, you know - and I'm sure, for them, he is and humor is very subjective. And maybe I'm completely wrong, but I just don't see anything funny about sarcasm, about taunting and pointing. And as I said, these mash-ups where you use the news - to really ride the news, you'll never get away from the news, you know? He's drowning under the information that a good comic just sort of explodes to clear a space for us. And…
CONAN: Well, what are the things you do in the book, in the essay on Jon Stewart? As you - you write about his interview with Richard Clarke. He describes Clarke - he, Stewart, describes Clarke's book as mind-blowing, it was insane. His book and the testimony of the 9/11 hearings provided a window into how our government functions. And you said that while you may agree with Richard Clarke and think he's a wonderful human being, this is not necessarily the role of comedy.
Mr. SIEGEL: Right. I agreed with Clarke. I don't know if he's a wonderful human being, but I certainly agree with him and I was glad for the revelations in his book. But comedy is not about edification, you know. I don't think it should be morally instructive. It should be explosive, like Richard Pryor was explosive, flowing apart, you know, rearranging all the ordinary givens.
And I think Clarke should have been celebrated. But as a public figure who is full of his own folly, he should have been lampooned. He was treated too respectfully.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Matthew.
MATTHEW: Thank you.
CONAN: And, well, as long as we're arranging the escort for you on the way out the building - Larry David, another critic favorite - you say stands comedy on its head, and you don't mean that in a good way.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, in the beginning, I felt that David really, you know - that instead of puncturing the big guy, he deflated the little guy. It was all about his disappointments at the hands of various people in the service industry.
A waitress disappoints him. Someone who sells him a new pair of eyeglasses disappoints him. And he was - he wasn't - he had reversed the comic dynamic, you know. That was at the beginning. Now, I think having read my review of his…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SIEGEL: He's improved.
CONAN: He's taken your advice, yeah.
Mr. SIEGEL: He's improved and I watch him, I think he's funny now.
CONAN: You think he's funny now?
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.
CONAN: All right, well, at that point, where we cancel the extra half dozen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We're talking with Lee Siegel from our Bureau in New York. His new book is "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television." You said a few minutes ago, you left the TV beat to spend more time with your family. Is it a relief not to - it's almost impossible to keep up.
Mr. SIEGEL: It is impossible. But that's so true. It's just, you know, there's so much on now with the advent of cable television, and you flip from one thing to another. And one of the drawbacks to being a TV critic is that you have to review shows on the basis of just one or two or at the most three episodes.
And, you know, a literary critic would never dream of reviewing a novel on the basis of the first three chapters. But that's what you have to do because you have to go on to the next show. I thank heavens that I was a weekly critic and not a daily critic.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And it's obviously an ephemeral medium, and we can judge that just on the basis of some of the programs that you review, which are scarcely remembered - "Growing Up Gotti," "Supernanny," "30 Days", "Stump the Schwab." These don't last very long, some of them, perhaps, rightly.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, perhaps rightly. They come and go so fast, you don't know that they deserve to be there or not. You know, room has to immediately be made for the next sensational thing. You're dealing, after all, with not just artistic phenomena, but commercial juggernauts. That's the hybrid nature of being a TV critic.
CONAN: We're talking with Lee Siegel. We'd like to take more of your calls, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And then you can also check at our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
I'm Neal Conan. When we come back, we're going to be talking about the genesis and history - and future history of the cop show. Lee Siegel says it will never go away, and about the nature of a medium at a technological crossroads.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We all have a dream job in mind, and for a lot of us, TV critic might be near the top of the list. Lee Siegel spend years reviewing television programs and sadly, he says it's not so easy. His new book is collection of his essays on TV shows from "The New Republic" and the changing television business. It's called "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television."
To read what he has to say about why we love our cop shows, you can check out an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org/talk. If you have questions about the nature of television, the medium or the business and why we watch what we watch, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail email@example.com. And you can also join us on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.
And I wanted to talk about cop shows, but here's a related e-mail, this, from Scott in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing up, I loved private eye shows like "Magnum P.I.," "Moonlighting," "Rockford Files," "Simon & Simon," - God help me - "Riptide" and others. What happened to this once prominent and entertaining genre? "Veronica Mars" appears to be the only exception.
Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, that's a great question. I don't know what's happened to the private eye shows, you know. They have seemed to have gone in the way of filmed war, where you did - where you also had a lot of private eyes.
I think maybe because the private eye was - been in taking the uniform of a cop, you were able to portray a law enforcement person in a much more kind of ambiguous way, as more tormented and so forth. I think since cop shows themselves have gotten, since "NYPD Blue," so complex, so psychologically complex, you don't need to make that shift into the private eye.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Whereas cops, you say, on the big screen and the small cops enthrall us the way gods and demigods captured the imaginations of ancient Greeks and Romans.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, a cop is - in a radically individualist culture - a cop is the individual in crisis. I mean, the cop who's at odds with his superiors and also trying to get the bad guys, he's stretching the very limits of individual integrity and capacity and power. That's why we're so fascinated by that thing.
CONAN: From - is it of a piece with Western starring a sheriff?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, they're certainly related. I think, again, after the war - when you have to film the war, I think that gradually displaced the Western, you know. Things have just gotten too kind of shady after the war. And it wasn't - it was too much to have a guy with a hat and a badge.
You really needed someone lost in the big city, you know, and blending into the shadows. It's very hard - there are no shadows in Westerns really right? There's too much sunlight and everybody's out in the open.
CONAN: Well, some of those modern Westerns.
Mr. SIEGEL: Though - oh, yes. "Deadwood," of course.
CONAN: Now, you say the - in a way, the o'er modern police coach show was "NYPD Blue" and then three different types of cop shows grew out of it.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, well, you had "NYPD Blue," which was the, as I said earlier, the kind of beginning of the psychologically complex cop, forerunner of today's shield. And then you have the reaction against that. You know, you had cop shows where things were much more simple.
And then, third type, I've completely forgotten. And I'm watching - I'm back watching TV. This is what happens.
CONAN: Well, we've got to the greedy type, have we?
Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, well, the greedy types - well, that - but that comes from "NYPD Blue." There's the reality of cop show, which in a sense is more idealized than these cop dramas like "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue." The reality cop show just - it's called "The Cops," not shows public servants just doing what they do - cops going out and arrest, doesn't show them drinking. It doesn't show them in bursting marriages. It doesn't show them brooding over guilty actions they committed in the past. It's much more…
CONAN: It's back to "Dragnet"?
Mr. SIEGEL: It's back to "Dragnet" and back to the ordinary person's experience of the police, right? But we don't experience the police as these tormented figures. We expect them to help us when we need help.
CONAN: Let's get to more callers on the line. Again, we're talking with Lee Siegel about his book "Not Remotely Controlled." This is Al, Al's with us from Cape Coral in Florida.
AL (Caller): Yes, whatever happened to science fiction on television? From "Lost in Space" all the way to "Deep Space Nine," all of a sudden, it disappeared.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, you have science fiction in politics now, so you don't need it on television. You have science fiction and - life is becoming more like science fiction.
AL: Yes, but they gave us - in the '60s, the '70s and the '80s - they give us a hopeful and optimistic view of the future. Now, the only view of the future we have is global warming, overpopulation and the sinking of the American economy.
Mr. SIEGEL: So who needs science fiction?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, maybe if you need some hope. But for that, you say tune in to "Oprah."
Mr. SIEGEL: Tune in to Oprah or listen to an older Rod McKuen recording.
CONAN: Al, thanks very much for the call.
AL: Thank you.
CONAN: All right. In a way, there are an awful lot of semi-science - I mean, even "Lost" because there's certain science fiction element in that.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I think all the boundaries are blurring, you know, "John from Cincinnati," this new HBO drama, that has elements of, at least fantasy, if not science fiction - people levitating off the ground and so forth. There was a state - religious programs for a while, "Revelation," "Joan of Arcadia," of course, where characters were being spoken to by God. That's a kind of science fiction. But I think science fiction, in so far as it exists, is now combination of religion and fantasy.
CONAN: Let's get - this is Jeff, Jeff is with us from East Lansing in Michigan.
JEFF (Caller): Hi. You were talking about Oprah a little bit earlier…
JEFF: …and I think she's pretty much the exception. But what happened to black people on TV? I mean, I'm black, I'm African-American and I'm always looking for black folks on TV and I rarely see them - network, HBO, whatever.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, what happened to black people in movies? What happened to black people in contemporary literature? What happened to black people in general? I simply don't think the black experience is represented in any medium the way it should be, you know. I don't know…
JEFF: (Unintelligible) America.
Mr. SIEGEL: You know, well, part of the - you know, Spike Lee once said that it's because what we needed are more blacks, black professionals making money in the various professions and business and pouring money into the production of art.
And maybe that's so, but I couldn't agree with you more. The few things that are on are gems like "Everybody Hates Chris." That was a wonderful show. No one wanted to touch the representation of blacks in "The Sopranos." I love the Sopranos, but no one was very critical of "The Sopranos."
Mr. SIEGEL: I don't see it. There's a great cartoon, "The Boondocks," the great McGruder cartoon, which is more honest about race than anything else on television. But I agree with you. I don't know why.
CONAN: Well, there are black characters, and - you know, all these ensembles dramas, they have at least one black character.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, that's true. But it's still is not enough and there are often - the ensemble, well, and the black characters are often very predictable as sitcoms are. But I don't see a black "Sopranos." I don't see a black "Little House on the Prairie," you know. I'd like to see that.
JEFF: And I think in the black, in the ensembles, it almost feels like the black character is like the rule of one. Oh, we got to have one. It's a sad state to me.
Mr. SIEGEL: You know, I agree with you, and I think TV critics and cultural critics should write more about it. That's all.
JEFF: I agree. Thanks.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jeff. You also write about the nature of the medium itself and obviously we're a long ways away from the days of, you know, the three big broadcast networks. And maybe if you were lucky in your market, a couple of independent stations where in a television cable world now are 500 stations and nothing on, but the Dinosaurs, the networks, still hanging on.
Mr. SIEGEL Well, I think they'll always hang on, you know. There's a lot of money then and a lot of power. But they are slowly changing as well. They'll have to. Everybody is rushing to adapt to a new world that's taking shape, though, no one really knows what the shape is and no one even knows how new it is.
Everyone's running around frightened. But there's no doubt that the screen is now central in the culture, more central than literary culture - the computer screen, the TV screen, the movie screen. And even if as things seemed to be going you're right, we will be able to hold all of culture in our palm at one point and it will still be a screen.
CONAN: There will still be a screen. But there is also the reality, market fragmentation, for example, you go back to radio, which of course you have competition from broadcasting with pictures in the 1950s or so. But what happened to radio, when more channels became available FM. What's market fragmentation?
Every radio station decided not to compete against every other radio stations, but against the three others that were broadcasting their brands of classic rock or whatever it was. You see that happening in TV?
Mr. SIEGEL: There's certain amount of that, but, you know, if you look at everyone's talking about these things, fragmentation. It's very wise of you to bring that up because there is a book called "The Long Tale," which is all about creating particularized niches.
But if you look at YouTube, for example, which is a kind of TV, you know. If you look at - everyone seems to be doing their own thing, but everyone's really copying everybody else. And if you look at American Idol, what are they doing? Well, they're creating a pastiche of famous musician styles. I don't know if all these fragmentation would result in the thriving of unique taste or a new kind of conformity.
CONAN: I tend to watch, writes - an e-mail from Matthew(ph), I tend to watch the whole season of a series even on DVD sans commercials. Do you think that this is an important development? I guess TiVo would have to be thrown into that.
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, TiVo is something else. TiVo is absolutely disorient. TiVo almost ruined my marriage at a certain point because I kept rewinding. I couldn't - I have to hear every word, you know, I get very, very neurotic. My wife threatened to leave me. We stopped getting TiVo because of that. But the DVD development, that's an interesting thing because you can start enjoying TV almost as a solitary art, like a novel. You don't have to go to it when it's on. You don't have to be interrupted. You just buy it and you put it on the way you would open a good book. And I think that's very consequential, yeah.
CONAN: Was there anything for you that was - we're laughing along here - called the divorce channel? You've heard this description of, for example, ESPN Classic, where one partner turns the other and says do you mean to tell me you're watching a football game and you already know who won?
Mr. SIEGEL: And that's the - that calls for divorce?
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's the last straw channel, maybe.
Mr. SIEGEL: Not in New York, though, only in Southern California, I think.
CONAN: That could be. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Ryan(ph). Ryan is with us from Des Moines in Iowa.
RYAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
RYAN: I'm a truck driver and I have to be very selective in what I watch. And, you know, I like to watch "House," which is widely viewed. And then, on TLC, there's the "Little People, Big World," which is really kind of a gem about adversity and family values, but I don't hear a single review about it. And I was wondering how you decide what shows you review; if you have a list that you're given or what. And my phone is going dead so I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Okay, Ryan. Thanks for the call. Drive carefully.
Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, don't watch too much while you're driving. How do I -well, it's partly you have to review things - that's a good question. Partly, you have to review things because other people are talking about them. And partly, you review on the basis of personal taste, if you're interested in something. It's always a combination of various pressures. Your boss might ask you to review something, you know?
CONAN: And now that you're not in the TV reviewing business anymore, what do you decide to watch? What do you like?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I watch what I like. I have to say, you know, as a critic, you're always trying to find out the place of critical detachment. And you don't find yourself liking what everyone else likes too often. But I did love "The Sopranos." In fact, I wrote a very long essay about it, which is my previous book of essays, it's called "Falling Upwards." And I do think "The Sopranos" was a kind of breakthrough for television. And I was watching that right up to the end.
CONAN: We're watching - We're listening to Lee Siegel. His book is called "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television". You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So right up to the end - that finale - what did you think?
Mr. SIEGEL: Well, it's funny. You know, people think different things about that. I noticed that in - the New York Post critic was very angry about the ending and critical of it. The more so-called sophisticated critics celebrated it as a new development in culture, a rebellion against closure and so forth. And it was that.
But I think that HBO - and no one writes about this because no one wants to right about class in America - I think HBO appeals to a certain class, a kind of upper middle class or upper class of people or an advanced type of intellectual. I don't think that the stories are vertical. They have no plots. I don't know why people were so shocked by the ending. A lot of the individual episodes throughout the show's history didn't really have an ending. There was no closure. There was no beginning, middle and end. And I admire it, but it makes me feel uneasy. You know? I think a lot of people out there in Hollywood land who make movies there - they lead very privileged lives. Their five senses are gratified every minute. And their time is disconnected. Their moments are disconnected. And for the rest of us, our moments are sort of bound by a need. We go from need to need. Needs are beginning, middles and ends. And we're like stories.
Mr. SIEGEL: And, you know, religious people like stories. And I wonder if all the - if the admiration of the end of "The Sopranos" was point of this backlash against religion - religion now that you're getting in a certain class of the society.
I also thought that - Mike Bloomberg throwing his hat up in the air rather than in the ring was his version of "The Sopranos'" ending as a kind of maybe not, bigot(ph).
CONAN: Yeah, "Soprano's" opening, if you will. Yeah, exactly. Let's see. We got one more caller in. This is Renee(ph), Renee is with us from Charleston, South Carolina.
RENEE (Caller): Hi. How you all doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
RENEE: I was a theater major and we took a class that was theater history. And our teacher drew a parallel between how theater changed and roamed to more of like the coliseum, you know, gladiators where it wasn't really a piece of art, and it showed the decline of their civilization. So do you feel that reality TV is kind of paralleling that in today's society where it's not really a thought art piece, more of real people and editing?
SIEGEL: Oh, I think it's a very shrewd thing to say. Absolutely. I think that that story, substance is giving away to spectacle. We, you know, you've got that all over, not just on TV.
SIEGEL: You know, on TV, we lurk from reality show to reality show from one sensational event to another sensational event. But you've got it in the blogosphere, the gotcha ethics of the bloggers, you know. You've got it in this information culture, these streams of information which are really disconnected spectacles, in a way, with no story or idea connecting them. We're watching them.
RENEE: (Unintelligible) you're listeners, support the theater. Because I'm an actress and all those rowdy TV shows are taking our employments away.
SIEGEL: Well, I'd love to see a playwright write some sort of satire or a parody. I think reality TV is right for a destructive parody. So please rally all your brethren or your comrades…
RENEE: Thank you very much.
Mr. SIEGEL: …and do something.
RENEE: I love your show, by the way.
CONAN: Oh, thank you very much, Renee.
RENEE: Take care.
CONAN: And I would - if we had time, we would cite at least Siegel's essay on "Reno 911," which he does say satirizes a lot of reality TV shows. Lee Siegel, thanks very much.
SIEGEL: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
CONAN: Lee Siegel joined us from our bureau in New York. His book is "Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television."
Up next, the immigration bill dies in the Senate. We'll talk about the impact of today's vote and NPR's Ron Elving will join us. Plus, the American bald eagle gets an image makeover and makes a comeback. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.