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Murrow, Minow, Chayefsky, Sorkin, Kelley and Robbins -- Six Degrees of "Mad As Hell"
April 17, 2008  | By David Bianculli
 

Paddy Chayefsky wrote a movie. Edward R. Murrow, Newton Minow and Tim Robbins made speeches. Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley wrote TV shows. All six of them have looked at TV and said, in essence, the same thing: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

network1.jpgThose were the words screamed by Peter Finch's Howard Beale, the newsman turned "prophet of the airwaves," in Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 film, Network. That movie not only decried the slipping standards of broadcast news and entertainment, but eerily predicted their further erosion. If there truly were a mad prophet regarding the future of TV, it was Chayefsky himself.

Earlier, in real life, Murrow begged news directors to use TV for a noble purpose in his 1958 speech, and Minow all but threatened broadcasters to do the same in his own 1961 "vast wasteland" address. Earlier this week, actor-director Tim Robbins carried on that tradition, delivering a speech so full of sarcasm, outrage and undiluted disappointment, it could have been a remake or a a reboot: Howard Beale 2.0. (Read speech here.)

And just as Chayefsky, one of TV's all-time best writers (the Golden Age live drama Marty alone is enough to earn him that accolade), railed against his own machine, so have today's quality-TV dramatists. What Robbins said this week about the current state of television, Kelley essentially said on Boston Legal last week, and Sorkin said on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip two years ago. Both, it should be noted, mentioned Network by name.

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Sorkin's 2006 Studio 60 pilot on NBC had Wes Mendell, the late-night TV producer played by Judd Hirsch, going on his live sketch show to give a very serious, impromptu, Beale-like rant: "We're all being lobotomized by this country's most powerful industry," he told his viewing audience. " There's always been a struggle between art and commerce, and now I'm telling you, art is getting its ass kicked...

"People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump. We're eating worms for money!"

Last week on ABC's Boston Legal, Kelley placed James Spader's Alan Shore in the middle of a court case essentially putting TV on trial.

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"I doubt even Chayefsky could ever have imagined putting contestants on a program to eat worms or raw animal parts -- or women humiliating themselves to marry fake millionaires," the attorney Shore argued. Television is a noble beast, isn't it?

"Well, the shame is," he continued, "it once was. To many, it still should be. Television took us to the moon. It let us cry together, as a nation, when a beloved president was assassinated. Its unflinching and comprehensive coverage of Vietnam served to end that war. Television gave us Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Rod Serling, Ernie Kovacs. We had shows like The Defenders, All in the Family...

"Not so long ago, broadcasters had a real sense of responsibility. They took their statutory obligation to operate in the public interest very seriously. Now, the networks look for our guilty pleasures, and morbid curiosities, and pander to those, with the hope that they'll get us addicted... Psychologically damaged people are paraded on stage to be exploited, ridiculed, taunted... And we stand to get a lot more of it, because it sells, and it costs almost nothing to produce."

He then tells the jury -- and, by extension, the national TV audience:

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"The most memorable part of the movie Network was when Howard Beale started shouting, on national television, 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it any more!,' and the country joined in with him. You need to join in now.

"You need to go back to that room, and say you're not going to sit quietly and let these networks assault decency for profit. You're not going to stand for the exploitation of the disenfranchised.
You're sick of the networks debasing a medium they're supposed to be guardians of. Don't take it any more! Please. Please! Get mad as hell... and don't take it any more."

In essence, that's what Robbins was saying this week. Every once in a while, either on television or in front of its employees and executives, a little outrage is a good thing. Sometimes, it makes for good TV. Other times, it might even make TV good.

 
 
 
 
 
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