Last month a cartoonist chased a blonde, mini-skirted figment of his imagination around the living room and launched the 1969 television season. Subsequent TV fantasies have come in a variety of sizes and shapes, though their color is still predominantly white. Few of them are as artistically and imaginatively done as “My World and Welcome to It,” based on James Thurber’s writings and cartoons. And few, happily, are any more violent—at least before 9:00, when, apparently, the television industry thinks children should go to bed. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which last year chided TV, recently applauded the nonviolent trend, particularly in Saturday-morning cartoons. Still in need of disarming, however, are some Sunday-evening “family” shows.
While producers were lopping off violence, mediocrity was putting down deeper roots. This year it has blossomed in saccharine vignettes of cute kids and their widowed parents doing quasi-comic things and in soap operas offering escape into a frothy, make-believe society like “Bracken’s World” and in simulations of past successes like the counterfeit “I Love Lucy” that is “The Debbie Reynolds Show.” “Mediocre” rarely applies to Bill Cosby, but the comedian who can find humor in ghetto life emerges strangely unfunny on his TV show. His fans laugh loyally but perhaps wistfully, hoping their hero will make his situation comedy humorous before the network makes it legendary.
A few shows earn chuckles and even an occasional peal of laughter. Two funnier-than-average hits of recent seasons—nearly discarded when NBC decided their ratings were wilting—reappear in fresh time slots on new networks; the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t associate of Mrs. Muir was spirited to ABC, and CBS got secret Control agent Smart. Whatever else one may say for—or against—“Laugh-In,” its hour, crammed with audio and visual gags, is one of the funniest and most absorbing on television. While other shows look better from behind a newspaper or over an ironing board, “Laugh-In’s” steady bombardment demands full attention. This season part of the laughter seems aimed at the establishment with spots like “The Broadcasts of General Bull Right.”
Elsewhere anti-establishmentarianism is almost nonexistent—scared off, perhaps, by CBS censorship of the Smothers Brothers. Dramas promise to portray social conditions—the drug problem, professional breaches of ethics, racial injustice, the generation gap (but rarely the war)—and some, especially “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” and “Room 222,” do so with taste and feeling.
Although tidy conclusions appear every half-hour or so, such predictable happily-ever-after endings do not make TV shows moral or true. Considering this season’s schedule, truth may fare best on documentary specials and on music and talk shows, where at least there is some information and entertainment. Most of television’s fantasies—including daytime soap operas, sitchcom reruns, and myriad quiz shows—furnish a paltry escape machine. Such mediocrity is not good enough for one who knows supreme Good. For him diversion should take a more excellent way—sleuthing with G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, or flying a kite with the kids, or attending a concert in person or via television, or initiating a chase of his own, after, perhaps, a tennis ball.
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