The day before Thanksgiving I found myself watching broadcast television. Not by choice, mind you. I haven’t had my own broadcast-receiving TV since, oh, the spring of 1997. A few years before that, I’d already eschewed broadcast news and found my mental health much improved for it. By ’97, I realized that all of broadcast television is designed to make the viewer feel profoundly unhappy with one’s lot in life — his car, her body, the cleanliness of their toilet, the smell of their armpits, the whiteness of their teeth, their lack of bravado in gunfights, and their inability to fuck every comely or handsome figure who saunters into the room.
I haven’t regretted for one nanosecond my decision to boot broadcast TV.
But Wednesday, I was in a position wherein I was unable to run, shrieking, out of the room when the TV, tuned to WTHR in Indianapolis, was turned on. See, I’m in the middle of a six-week course of daily hyperbaric chamber treatments. Also known as HBO (for hyperbaric oxygen), the treatments are a must for the likes of diabetics who’ve lost or are at risk of losing toes or feet, say, to their ravages of their horribly unfortunate disease or, for those like me, who’ve undergone cancer radiation treatment. In my case, my cancer was in my neck so I’d had to submit to a month and a half of daily linear-beam radiation therapy. The result was the smashing of a number of malignant lymph nodes surrounding my thyroid gland as well as the weakening of my jaw to the point that the bone now has the structural integrity of styrofoam and the blood vessels supplying said mandible have been shrunk to a thread, making me vulnerable to tooth abscesses and unable to heal in that locale should any dental work be done. Turns out, I indeed do have an abscess now and that work can’t be done until, through HBO, my mandibular blood vessel has been strengthened and enriched.
The HBO treatments work like this: I lie in a coffin-like airtight container for hours a day breathing pure oxygen at twice normal atmospheric pressure. Every day, I strip down, take off all jewelry and my glasses, get questioned about whether I’ve put on underarm deodorant or skin lotion, get physically examined, and then lay down, flat on my back, my arms at my sides, and sealed into this clear tube. The hope is at the end of six weeks the blood flow in my jaw will be so enhanced that I’ll be able to get my broken tooth removed and then start scheduling three other surgeries that can’t be done right now because of that abscess. Phew! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.
You might notice the TV screen suspended above the HBO tube in the photo. That’s cool. The people who run these devices realize people like me would probably prefer to leap off tall buildings to lying in a coffin-like tube for hours every day so, to ameliorate that unhappiness, they provide TV. I can’t bring a book or my crossword puzzles into the tube because, for the same reason I have to strip and have no oily substances on my body, the pure oxygen environment is highly flammable. (Those of us of a certain age might remember the fatal fire that took the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in January, 1967. During a practice run, they were sealed into their capsule breathing pure oxygen and a stray spark set off a conflagration within it. The astronauts died of asphyxiation within moments.)
The people at my HBO facility (ironically, just yards from the cancer treatment center where I did my radiation stint back in 2016), allow us patients to bring in DVDs to watch during our sessions. And for those who don’t collect movies, the facility actually has a library of DVDs, donated by angels and past patients. I bring in my own DVDs and Wednesday I’d been watching On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Karl Malden and scored by Leonard Bernstein. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times but each time, I’m blown away by the acting chops displayed therein.
Brando’s performance, along with a couple of other films he’d done around the same time, essentially redefined how actors act in movies. For that matter, all the main players were adherents of the then-revolutionary Stanislavski system or method of acting. They were no longer “stage actors” but fully immersed themselves into character.
For my money, if someone wants to assert that On the Waterfront is the greatest movie ever made, I wouldn’t argue too much
In any case, the movie ended with about twenty minutes left in my HBO session. The attendant then switched the TV to broadcast and I was treated to a program called Daily Blast Live, wherein four people sit behind a desk and blather. The four seem to be straight out of a TV producer’s dreamworld of diversity, with a black man and woman and a white man and woman, ranging in age from early 30s to late-ish 40s, all imbued with nice, clean, middle-class values, competing with each other to convince us that they’re just like you and me.
Watching these four was a revelation. I should have known, but have forgotten in the last quarter century, how godawfully vacuous broadcast TV is. I felt as if I were watching an over-the-top satire of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. In fact, for a hot few moments, I actually thought I was watching some take-off on all these daytime TV shows. But no, this was the real thing and, for chrissakes, if this is what America watches on a regular basis no wonder so many people are thrashing about, subscribing to conspiracy theories, voting for carnival barkers for president, refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, and every other sin we’ve been committing for decades in this holy land. Broadcast TV has warped peoples’ minds, shattered our collective view of reality, and turned us into slack-jawed zombies.
None of this, of course, is any breaking news, but, as I say, I’d so completely divorced myself from this sick oeuvre that I’d forgotten how bizarre it all is.
The four were talking about the next day’s Thanksgiving meal and, swear to god, they spent at least ten minutes discussing whether one should eat like a pig, stuffing one’s self to near nausea, or perhaps take it easy and eat in something akin to moderation. They argued this point with all the passion and ferocity of Karl Marx and Sen. Joe McCarthy in some fantasy world fighting about communism versus capitalism.
One of them, the black man, posited, “I think it’s Thanksgiving (quite an astute observation, I might add) and we should eat to our heart’s content!” He uttered this with all the conviction of a man calling for an end to the child sex slave trade. The white man shook his head vigorously and countered, “No, no, no, no! It’s better to eat small portions. That way, you can enjoy your food and not suffer afterward.” He offered this position with the assurance of Einstein chatting about his special relativity theory. This went on for long minutes until the black woman said , “Well, let’s all agree there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting back on the sofa with your belt undone.” The other three nodded as if she’d advocated for an end to all wars.
The white woman then shifted gears and introduced a remote interview with a women who starred in one of those Real Housewives shows, which I didn’t even know was a thing anymore. This woman was from Orange County. Leaning forward toward the camera, the white woman asked, earnestly, what the Real Housewife lady was going to do tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day. Get ready for a shock: the lady said she and her family were going to eat a big meal!
After running down the list of things she was going to have on her table — all of which were typical Thanksgiving fare, to which the Daily Blast panel oohed and aahed as if she were ticking off exotic treats from distant foreign lands — the Real Housewife lady turned deadly serious and asked if she could be indulged in crowing about her young daughter’s recent fabulous accomplishment. Given license to crow, she then revealed her daughter had participated in an event that raised money for some life-threatening disease research. The Daily Blast gang gaped and gasped and, honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one or more of them demanded she be nominated for the next Nobel Peace Prize.
Mercifully, my HBO session had come to an end and while I was being de-pressurized, the speakers within my tube went silent.
When the attendant brought me out of the tube, I resisted with all my might the urge to ask her if she watched this show every day. And, if she’d said yes, I was fully prepared to yell, “What in the goddamned hell is wrong with you?”
I dunno, maybe none of this is news to some of you but I drove away from the HBO facility in a daze. I still can’t believe this is how we entertain ourselves, this is how we get informed about the world around us. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. Look at what in the hell we’ve become.