get your hands on the kinds of pornographic materials peoplernonce had to order from France.rnIf we move from the would-be rapist’s bedroom, where hernhas his own computer, television, stereo system, and VCR,rndown to the family room to take a peek at what Mom and Dadrnare w atching, we will not be too surprised at their son’s viewingrnhabits. Many American families routinely rent films like BluernVelvet and Basic Instinct, and even if they do not allow theirrnchildren to watch these films with them, kids always knowrnwhat their parents are up to.rnLet us suppose these are good Christian people who do notrnwant to see Michael Douglas’s backside; they do, nonetheless,rnlike to watch PC movies and network television. When the setrnis off, the men may look at Sports Illustrated, their wives atrnPeople. If future archaeologists were lucky enough to locate arnfair sampling of this cultural stratum, they might conclude, erroncoush,rnthat they had struck upon a late 20th-centuryrnpomographer’s collection of exotica, while the truth is they hadrntunneled into the public library.rnThe week before preparing this issue, I was laid up with thernBeijing flu. With senses sharpened by pain and a brain dulledrnb- multicultural microbes, I was in shape to carry out my longdeferredrnexperiment: watching a week of network television.rnEcjuipped with soft pillow and comfy chair (“Not the comfyrnchair!”), I watched new shows and reruns, talk shows andrnsoaps, cartoons and real-life cop thrillers. My 12-year-old sonrnwho loves TV was thrilled in anticipation of seeing all the programsrnwe neer watch. Mostly for his benefit, I took a look atrnseveral family shows, such as Full House, but his attentionrnwandered by the second commercial and before long he was offrnsomewhere playing a game. In the middle of the second night,rnhe came in and looked at a few minutes of Beverly Hills, 90210:rn”When I grow up,” he concluded, “I sure hope I don’t havernyour job.”rnThe only important conclusion I was able to draw is banalrnenough: network television is awful, worse than even I hadrnimagined. For one thing, the writing is wretched. I do not recallrnlaughing aloud except once, when Phil Donahue was doingrnhis impersonation of a public intellectual. Phil really is,rnwithout knowing it, a comedic genius, a sort of Professor IrwinrnCorey in spite of himself, and when he teams up with thatrnother incorrigible clown, Vlad Pozner, the result is zanier thanrnam thing since Olson and Johnson.rnOf the shows that were actually billed as comedies, onlyrnSeinfeld offered anything that could be recognized as jokes. Ofrnthe two episodes I saw, one was amusing in a neurotic sort ofrnway but spoiled by Mr. Seinfeld’s acting. Like RoseannernArnold, Seinfeld seems to be staring at the cameraman, and herndelivers his lines like a blackjack dealer laying out cards: efficient,rnwell-timed, predictable. I had heard a great deal aboutrnthe show, that it was “hip” and risque, but all I found was thernsame formula-humor that dominated television the last time Irnwatclied it. Seinfeld was a lot dirtier—one whole show was de-rn’oted to an anonymous woman who makes a salacious propositionrnon tape. When it turns out to be his old girlfriend’s idearnof a joke, Seinfeld and his friends begin to eye her like a packagernof prime porterhouse being slowly unwrapped by a refugeernfrom the Duke rice diet.rnAnother thing that has come a long way is the depiction ofrnJews. In the good old days of a decade ago, it seemed like anrnunwritten law that Jews played Italians and gentiles playedrnJews. Jewish characters were conceived of, essentially, as gentilesrnwith one or two distinguishing features—academicrnachievement and obsessive mothers. Seinfeld, on the otherrnhand, might have been concei’ed by Julius Streicher: the mainrncharacters are whining and ineffectual; the humor descends tornthe level of nose-picking and sex fantasy. Why doesn’t thernAnti-Defamation League do something about the self-hatingrnJews who write these shows?rnI’he Simpsons also pokes fun at American Jews but in thernsame spirit with which it picks on Hindus, cops, fundamentalists,rnand schoolteachers. For all its faults. The Simpsons is thernonly serious social satire allowed on television. Who can forgetrnthe episode in which Lisa turns bad and steals all thernteachers’ editions? “Does anyone remember the multiplicationrntables?” screams the math teacher. When Bart, like the goodrnbrother he is underneath, takes the heat, his punishment is tornwrite “I will not expose the ignorance of my teachers.”rnTelevision humor, for the most part, seems to consist ofrnethnic stereotyping and references to other television shows.rnOn Fox T”s Sinbad, a child refuses to go to church because herndoes not believe in God. At this point Stepin Fetchit—or is itrnMantan Moreland or Nick O’Demus—challenges his atheism:rn”Then how you explain Wile E. Coyote?” Imagine if arnwhite comic said blacks are so dumb they think Wile E. Coyote’srnsurvival is a proof of God’s existence? And if it is notrnRoadrunner cartoons, it is The Brady Bunch or Bonanza thatrnprovides the only cultural frame of reference that can be takenrnfor granted.rnMuch of the criticism of television has been selectively directedrnat MTV or particularly violent programs like NYPDrnBlue. This is a sucker’s game. Banning MTV is a perfectly goodrnidea, but neither the gangsta rap videos nor Beavis and Buttheadrnare anything more than the most superficial symptoms ofrna disease that has rotted out the institutions of our commonrnlife. One does not turn on MTV to receive edification anyrnmore than young men buy Playboy for the interviews. Thesernare the red-light districts of the popular media: they have alwaysrnbeen with us and always will be.rnWe must not expect to hear a Sunday school lesson in a bordello.rnFair enough. But why should we tolerate the Playboyrnphilosophy in Sunday school? The danger to society, representedrnby popular entertainment, is not to be found on thernfringes but at the center, which seems to represent the moralrnsystem of the majority. The nastier shows do less harm preciselyrnbecause we know they are nasty, and it is as much of arnwaste of time to criticize rock videos as it is to attack Bill Clinton.rnThat Disney movies and conservative Republicans shouldrnrepresent the mainstream, that is the real American horror.rnSo long as film has existed there have been adult movies, byrnwhich I do not mean pornography but serious films onrnthemes that are not “suitable for younger audiences.” Thernsame warning label should be placed on the plays of Shakespeare,rnEuripides, and Eugene O’Neill. Goethe observed thatrnthe admission of young women to the theater had ruined Germanrndrama, because it was no longer possible to take up difficultrnmatters on the stage. Goethe lived in an age when peoplernunderstood that even some very moral literature is not suitablernfor everyone, but democracy seems to assume that sauce for therngander must always be sauce for the goose and her goslings. Ifrnfather can see a production of a licentious play, such as ThernCountry Wife, then it must be, according to the 14th Amendment,rnfun for the whole family.rnAPRIL 1994/15rnrnrn