When Television Offers No Escape

Neither in historical documentaries nor in formulaic series is one safe from the realities of life on this planet.

Bellam Young as Mellie Grant in 'Scandal.'
Courtesy

In the spirit of proper disclosure (implying that there are things one does not disclose, most of them improper), I’d like to recount the following results of an experiment I conducted last Saturday. My aim was to discover how much time it takes – from the moment I switch on the TV and start zapping, looking for “things to see” – until I give up and settle down on yet another episode in yet another season of yet another series, and let the fictional events play themselves out before my weary eyes and muddled mind.

Another way of explaining said experiment is to say that, with a plethora of choices, programming schedules and VOD possibilities – none of them offering, at first glance, anything worth writing home about – I was groping for a subject for this TV column.

It was Saturday afternoon already, and it was hot. That is, I had the HOT cable provider remote in hand, and Channel 3 was showing “Grey’s Anatomy,” with its medics in blue, blood oozing in various shades of red, and the musings of Dr. Meredith Grey in voiceover, summing up briefly what it is all supposed to mean (or not to mean). Normally I would have settled on that – what’s wrong with an advanced course in human physiology, sex and surgery? But it was season 7, while on Yes and the rest of the world it was already season 12. On HOT Zone an episode of “Blue Bloods” had just finished, and “CSI: Cyber” was due to begin, but I said to myself that I have had enough of cyber. As in any crime series (“Criminal Minds,” “CSI,” “NCIS”), there are TV geeks who can hack into anywhere with a flick of the wrist.

So I kept on zapping and alighted on Channel 8, with episodes of the mini-series “The Hidden Side of WW2,” produced fairly recently by Can’t Stop Media, a “media content distribution boutique” based in London. Here at least I could claim that I’m not wasting my time, but learning something as well, so I parked there to see the end of the first episode, “The Rise of A. Hitler,” which was followed, for reasons unspecified and unclear, by the fourth, “The Holocaust.”

As it turns out, there are many things still unknown – or at least known by too few and already disputed by too many – about that war, which changed the world we live in. For instance, the episode about the Holocaust didn’t reiterate how and why it happened, but rather shed light on the story of a Polish officer, Witold Pilecki, who managed – actually volunteered – to get himself incarcerated in Auschwitz in 1941, in order to organize opposition and report from within. He was the first to notify “the world” in real time about the atrocities planned and perpetrated by the Nazis against the camp’s prisoners, the Jews and others. Another unsung hero of those days whose story was told in that episode was the German industrialist Eduard Schulte, who, in 1942, passed on to the outside world, in real time, news of the then top secret Wannsee Conference and its decisions on the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question.

It left me wondering about the title of the series, “The Hidden Side of WW2.” Pilecki and Schulte, each in his own way and in vastly different circumstances, endangered their lives to bring this most gruesome story to light, but the world and its leaders refused to heed the information and the warning it broadcast. What made me even sadder (but not much wiser) was the realization that even with that (and many other) “hidden” sides of World War 2 now known, it does not seem that humanity has learned any lessons. What is much worse, it dawned on me that whatever restraining impact the WW2 atrocities ever had – if at all – on the human race, such restraint fades with the passage of time.

A surfeit of reality

Here, I have to admit, I failed in my experiment. Presented with an opportunity to take in a lot of important new information about the world, and having embarked on a painful course of drawing some conclusions about the human race and my own part in it, my hand started groping for the remote between the bed covers. The zapping finger pointed me straight back to a channel where I could take cover from the surfeit of reality: HOT Channel 3, which had switched – while I was otherwise engaged in WW2 – from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Scandal.”

Ah, here at last I’ll be safe from reality, I thought, since we are in the realm of formulaic TV fiction, concocted for us by Shonda Rhimes. It’s not about the hidden sides of past wars, but rather about uncovering all possible and impossible secrets in the personal lives of many people, revolving around an oval room where another WW – the third one – can be started or averted.

The axis around which the world of “Scandal” turns is Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington), who specializes in fixing scandals in Washington, D.C. with her band of Gladiators, who always work for the good of a cause, even if the question “good for whom?” is more often than not left open. In the first seasons of “Scandal,” Olivia’s world was drawn by the gravity forces emanating from the bed of President Fitzgerald Grant III (aka “Fitz”), played by Tony Goldwyn, who directs some of the episodes. By now Fitz is at the end of his second term in office. His affair with her is over, he beds other women, his divorced wife Mellie, already a senator, is seeking the Republican party nomination to succeed her husband in the White House (she is played by Bellamy Young), and Pope now manages her campaign.

I’ve just stated that it is all “fictional,” but wait a second, where did I hear about a president who had a persistent philandering streak in him, with a wife who was elected a senator and went on to seek the party’s nomination for president? And if you think this is not an influx of reality into fiction, but a plot formula dictated by “political correctness” (cf. Claire Underwood vying for power in “House of Cards”) what about another contender for the Republican nomination in “Scandal,” the Texas lobbyist for an energy company whose boisterous behavior on screen in a fictional plot very much resembles a real contender for the Republican nomination?

I would have stayed tuned to “Scandal” forever (it was just announced that the series will have a sixth season), but when I heard Olivia warning another male character in the series about her father, “the monster,” only to hear that he is immune to the machinations of “the monster’s daughter,” I gave up and switched to the evening news.