TV producer David E. Kelley once again bit the hand that feeds him in last week's "Boston Legal."
It wasn't the first time, and it's doubtful it will be the last. Kelley has taken shots at TV in shows ranging from "L.A. Law" to "Ally McBeal."
Four years ago, an entire episode of "The Practice" revolved around the ills of reality television.
Last week, "Boston Legal" took on daytime talk shows specifically and TV in general. In a script Kelley himself wrote, a case involved a woman who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend after she turned down his marriage proposal on a (fictional) daytime show that sounded like a cross between "Dr. Phil" and "Maury."
Attorney Alan Shore (James Spader), representing the murdered woman's father, compared the current state of television to Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film "Network," which "depicted the extremes and perversities that television would resort to for the sake of ratings."
"It was a film way ahead of its time, and yet now it seems dated, given the depths to which television has sunk. I doubt even Chayefsky would ever have imagined putting contestants on a program to eat worms or raw animal parts or women humiliating themselves to marry fake millionaires. One network made a deal for O.J. Simpson to do a prime-time special on how he MIGHT have killed his ex-wife."
That's all true. Fox backed off the O.J. special in the face of massive criticism.
"Television is a noble beast, isn't it?" Alan continued "The shame is, it once was. And, 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, 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."'
All true. But while TV has done and continues to do great things, there's always been plenty of junk.
"There used to be standards of excellence in television," Alan said. "And I'm not talking only about Emmys and Peabodys, but not so long ago broadcasters had a real sense of responsibility. They took their statutory obligation to operate in the public interest very seriously."
Well, huge hits like "The Beverly Hillbillies" don't exactly fit any "standards of excellence." But if networks did a better job of policing themselves today, they would be facing fewer threats that the government will regulate them.
"Now, the networks look for our guilty pleasures and morbid curiosities and pander to those, with the hope that they'll get us addicted. Once you get people hooked, you've got 'em. And you have to get people hooked, because everything today is ratings, demographics, market share, money."
You can't argue with that.
"Even the news divisions today are now profit centers. Which means if good-looking, white-toothed anchors have better TVQs than credentialed journalists, you get the eye-candy. And if positive coverage of the war in Iraq reaches more households, you get Fox News.
"In fact, today you can switch back and forth between the right-wing news and the left-wing news. Whatever happened to Huntley and Brinkley, John Chancellor, to news that was just the news? Now we have partisan junk appealing to the lowest common denominator."
Again, that's a rose-colored-glasses look at TV's past. And there are TV news organizations that try to be balanced, while others do not.
Referencing the murder, Alan said it was "inevitable. It's practically scripted. It's happened before.
"For the show, the real tragedy was that the murder didn't happen on the show. That would have been the ratings blockbuster."
Certainly, that's hyperbole. But I'm more and more convinced that we actually might be headed in that direction.
And Alan pointed to how news organizations are co-opted by promoting tabloid TV while reporting on it.
"The nightly news ... gave (fictional TV host) Dr. Ray all the promotion he could possibly want, airing sensational clips and graphics from the show again and again and again. You see how it all works so beautifully together. The girl is killed, the show benefits, the news benefits and we eat it up."
Again, you can't argue.
"Psychologically damaged people are paraded on stage to be exploited, ridiculed, taunted. Of course this is what we get. And we stand to get a lot more of it because it sells."
It's an argument I've made myself with some frequency we get what we deserve because so many of us tune in to the tawdry junk.
Still, it's interesting to hear this sort of criticism of the industry coming from inside the industry.
Would that the people in charge would actually listen.