There’s nobody cool on television any more.
Not so long ago, the airwaves were cluttered with suave spies, slick private eyes, and debonair detectives. Television was an escapist medium, where you could forget your troubles and lose yourself in the exotic, sexy, exciting world inhabited by great looking, smooth-talking, extraordinarily self-confident crimesolvers.
You didn’t just watch them. You wanted to be them.
When I was a kid, I pretended I had a blow-torch in my shoe like James T. West. That I could pick a safe like Alexander Mundy, seduce a woman like Napoleon Solo, and run 60 miles an hour like Steve Austin. I wanted to have the style of Peter Gunn, the brawn of Joe Mannix, the charm of Simon Templar, and the wealth of Amos Burke, who arrived at crime scenes in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.
But around the time coaxial cable and satelite dishes made TV antennaes obsolete, television began to change. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be cool. It was cool to be troubled. Deeply troubled.
TV cops, crimesolvers, and secret agents were suddenly riddled with anxiety, self-doubt, and dark secrets. Or, as TV execs like to say, they became “fully developed” characters with “lots of levels.”
You can trace the change to the late 80s and early 90s, to the rise of “NYPD Blue,” “Twin Peaks,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” and “The X Files” and the fall of “Magnum PI,” “Moonlighting,” “Simon & Simon,” “MacGyver,” and “Remington Steele.”
None of the cops or detectives on television take any pleasure in their work any more. They are all recovering alcoholics or ex-addicts or social outcasts struggling with divorces, estranged children, or tragic losses too numerous to catalog and too awful to endure.
FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens, his partner has some kind of brain cancer, and he’s being crushed by a conspiracy he can never defeat.
CSI Gil Grissum is a social outcast who works knee-deep in gore and bugs while struggling with a degenerative hearing disorder that could leave him deaf.
Det. Lennie Briscoe of “Law and Order” is an alcoholic whose daughter was murdered by drug dealers.
Det. Olivia Benson of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is a product of a rape who now investigates the worst forms of sexual depravity and violence.
“Alias” spy Sydney Bristow’s loving boyfriend and caring roommate were brutally murdered because of her espionage work, she’s estranged from her parents, one of whom just might be a murderous traitor.
I’ve lost track of how many of Andy Sipowitz’s wives, children and partners have died on horrible deaths on “NYPD Blue,” but there have been lots.
Master sleuth Adrian Monk solves murders while grappling with his obsessive-compulsive disorder and lingering grief over his wife’s unsolved murder. And Monk is a light-hearted comedy. When the funny detectives are this psychologically-troubled and emotionally-scarred, you can imagine how dark and haunted the serious detectives have to be not get laughs.
Today’s cops, detectives and crimesolvers work in a grim world full of sudden violence, betrayal, conspiracies and corruption. A world without banter, romance, style or fun…for either the characters or the viewer. Robert Goren, Bobby Donnell, Vic Mackey, Chief Jack Mannion… can you imagine any kids playing make-believe as one of those detective heroes? Who in their right mind would want to be those characters or live in their world?
And that, it seems, is what escapism on television is all about now: watching a TV show and realizing, with a sigh of relief, your life isn’t so bad after all.
I think I preferred losing myself in a Monte Carlo casino with Alexander Mundy or traveling in James T. West’s gadget-laden railroad car… it’s a lot more entertaining than feeling thankful I don’t have to be Det. Joel Stevens in “Boomtown” or live in the Baltimore depicted in “The Wire.”
At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon at my tender young age, I long for a return to escapist cop shows, to detectives you envied, who live in a world of great clothes, sleek cars, amazing apartments, beautiful women and clever quips. Detectives with lives that are blessedly free of angst and anxiety. Detectives who aren’t afraid to wear a tuxedo, sip fine champagne, confront danger with panache, and wear a watch that’s actually a missile-launcher. Detectives who are self-assured and enjoy solving crimes, who aren’t burdened with heartache and moral ambiquity.
Yeah, I know it’s not real. Yeah, I know it’s a fantasy. But isn’t that what television is supposed to be once in a while?
10 thoughts on “Where Have All The Cool Heroes Gone?”
Great entry Lee. I was talking about this very topic with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. TV is SO much different than it was in 1984 or 1990, and not for the better. Now it’s all the characters you mentioned above, talk shows, and reality crap. TV really, truly needs another “Magnum, P.I.” or “Remington Steele” or “I Spy” or “It Takes A Thief.”
I keep pitching shows like that to the networks… and I get these blank looks. So, in mid-pitch, my cool hero suddenly becomes a reformed crack addict with a prison record and two ex-wives to support…and mourning the mysterious disappearance of his brother.
The last ultra-cool show I saw was ABC’s short-lived Michael Madsen vehicle, “Vengeance Unlimited,” from John McNamara and David Simkins.
Madsen’s character, Mr. Chapel, would do whatever he could–usually with a smile on his face or a menacing chuckle–to play with villains’ minds and get justice for his client. Sort of like The Pretender with a meaner streak.
That “smile” on M. Madsen’s face wasn’t to play with the villains’ minds — it was telling the executive producers he didn’t give a fuck — hey, Lee, can I use that word here? — that he was getting 80 Gs an episode, he hated the show, hated them for hiring him, and was never going to show more than one facial expression per episode.
At least, that’s what one Person Who Would Know once told me.
But on a more serious topic, Lee, you should watch Alias past the first half dozen episodes. It’s true that Sydney is never exactly carefree — after all, the show is about the costs of undercover work and betrayal — but there are lots of shows where she really is cool.
Alias is about the most escapist show out there, in spite of the betrayals and heartache. (Don’t worry, I still haven’t forgiven them for what they did to Francie.)
Having said that, can’t we have a balance? Have some shows where the main characters have issues and some that’s more in the way of fantasy? I like both.
Not to transform Lee’s blog into alt-fan-Alias-geek or something, but I was thrilled when they killed Francie. Well, not exactly when they killed Francie, as I’ve been watching the DVD box sets, and therefore didn’t know Francie was dead until 18 months after the deed was done. But that was one big drag taken out of the show. If the evil villains had taken out Francie’s boyfriend the reporter — is that Will? I can’t remember and season 3 doesn’t come out on DVD until September — I’d have been even happier.
Funny, but one of my biggest complaints about season 3 was the lack of a life for Sydney. I found I needed those sub-plots to help balance out the show. I missed Will and Francie completely. Not that I thought season 3 was horrid. Just not what seasons 1 and 2 were.
The entry was right on target.
With the exception of ” Monk”, most of the new shows are not entertaining, they are depressing. I have no desire to welcome those characters into my home.
Give me a handsome,clever detective who arrives in a Rolls Royce. Or one who bumbles along in a ruppled rain coat, charming the viewers while solving the crime.
I’ll welcome them with open arms and faithful viewing.
I enjoy your column like entries. Why don’t you publish them in book form?
You’d have one buyer for sure. Me.
There IS hope! Amazon has “It Takes a Thief”, starring Robert Wagner, finally listed. Granted, there’s no release date, but this IS progress. Maybe 2006 will be the year of the Mundy Mob!
After watching the Academy Awards, the only actor in Hollywood today who could ever play Al Mundy or Al’s son in an update/remake of IT TAKES A THIEF is George Clooney. Between the tuxedo and that grin of his, he’s the only one who could even come close to Robert Wagner’s style, sense of humor, attitude, and overall slickness. It’s a shame that the Powers That Be would dismiss it out of hand due to the OCEAN’S 11-12 (and I heard 13 is coming).