I haven’t watched more than two episodes of any contemporary television series in twenty years, but I do watch baseball and football and so I get a fair barrage of commercials advertising what is supposed to be funny or “edgy” or seriously dramatic and so forth. My wife likes to watch home decorating shows and cooking shows, so that I overhear some of the stuff that comes on after the show she’s wanted to watch has concluded.
It strikes me—and she confirms my impression by her observations—that there’s a real meanness in much of what comes on the air even in shows that should be only about which finials to choose under the eaves, and what spice goes on the roast pork. By meanness I intend what someone before our generation would understand by it: pettiness, shallowness of thought, smallness of spirit, avarice, being unwilling to praise others, a thoughtless slovenliness; all things snide, selfish, crude, currish, and coarse.
Canadian television, for example, features a cooking show called He Said, She Said. He is a pudgy diminutive gay man, and she is a tall foul-mouthed woman, and all through the show she snipes at him and belittles him, and that’s supposed to be entertaining. There’s a home decorating show that pits one couple against another for a prize, in a way that encourages badmouthing and jealousy: the couples are asked to evaluate what the other couple has done and to talk it down. Casual profanity—“oh my God!”—is heard everywhere on the real estate shows; casual vulgarity also, easily “heard” under the bleeps. One of the cookery shows visited a high-end restaurant in Newport and had to censor every other sentence the cook and proprietor uttered.
One of the healthier of the sick shows up in Canuckistan is Till Debt Do Us Part, in which a smart money manager enters the homes of people who have spent themselves into staggering debt, apart from their mortgages, on makeup, eating out, clothes, boy toys, banking fees, girl toys, and closets and garages full of what is tasteless, thriftless, or useless. Sometimes the couple are married, sometimes not. Often there are children whose futures the parents seem blithely to ignore. In general the attitudes of the incontinent spenders range from sullenness to repressed rage against the fellow offender to embarrassment, but never repentance and shame. Usually they’ll get the wife in one shot complaining about the husband, or the husband about the wife, or one of them sulking about having to give up some important focus of devotion, like a motorcycle or a monthly makeover at the beauty shop.
Sometimes I’m at the dentist’s and have to overhear something like The View, which, as far as I can tell, is a show in which four or five shrieking spluttering hags escaped from Macbeth kick and scratch and pull one another’s hair while engaging in “debate” that has no more content to it than “I wanna!” and “So’s your mother!” Or I’ll see an advertisement for a crime show, featuring some craggy middle-aged man with a permanent glower, who looks for all the world as if he chews vipers in his office and spits the venom on his Turkish carpet. Or an advertisement for a medical show, featuring an anorexic female doctor with scowl-wrinkles, or a semi-shaved male doctor whose masculinity consists in never smiling or saying a single friendly word to anyone alive. Serious stuff, you know. If That’s Entertainment, give me silence. I’d much rather listen to the robins chirping in the maple trees when the sun sets. Did you know, reader, that robins are thrushes and are excellent singers?
The opposite of meanness is, I’d say, grace, with its natural and not yet theological meaning. It’s more than etiquette. It’s a free and cheerful willingness to put other people at their ease, by giving them genuine praise, by dressing well but not to show off, by knowing how to accept a gift and how to give one in return. It is gentleness in manner and speech. Such grace is not yet charity, just as a well-set table is not a meal. But a well-set table itself is a good and generous thing.
The gracious person shies away from dirt and double-dealing. He would be ashamed to utter foul words in front of a camera. She could no more accept a quarter of a million dollars for a speech—even if she were the daughter of Demosthenes or Cicero—than she could rifle the pockets of children. He doesn’t decide not to swagger; it would not occur to him to swagger. She doesn’t hold her tongue from accusing her enemies of hatred; it would not occur to her to make such an accusation.
Where then is the grace?
My family and I do sometimes relax in front of the television. Lately we have been watching sixty-year-old episodes of the game show, What’s My Line? For those of you who have never heard of it, the trick of the show was to bring in people with odd occupations, and to have four well-known and humorous panelists ask yes-or-no questions of the challenger, until they either guess the occupation or receive ten no’s, at which point the challenger is declared the winner. The audience would be in on the secret.
The fun was in the misunderstandings and the questions that might apply but in an odd way. So Steve Allen asked of one fellow, “Could I get into this product that you make?” “Yes,” said the contestant, and he and the moderator John Daly and the audience started to laugh. “Well,” said Allen, looking to the lovely actress to his left, “could more than one person get into this thing—could Arlene and I both get into it?” The audience began to roar. “Yes,” said the contestant. He was a designer of manholes for sewers.
Or the journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, asking a very pretty woman from upstate New York, “This product that you deal with—could I find it in the home?” The contestant, laughing, eyes wide, looks to Daly for help, and he throws his arm around her shoulder and says, “We’d better have a conference here!” He whispers into her ear, blocking his lips with his hand so the panelists won’t get any clues; she whispers back, they laugh, and he says, “Miss Kilgallen, it is within the realm of possibility that this object might be found in the home, yes.” The audience enjoys the confusion. They know that the lady raises worms for fishermen.
It really was a good show, with a lot of innocent fun—at least in the early years; I don’t know what became of it later. I suppose because, once in a while, there might be just the shade of something merry in the Shakespearean sense, What’s My Line? was aired late on Sunday nights. But shows that children now watch are a hundred times viler and nastier than What’s My Line? ever was suggestive. If the show were aired now, we’d be treated to male strippers, condom manufacturers, toilet seat testers, and cultural detritus.
What you see, though, is something that’s immediately striking but hard to describe. First, as the show opens, the announcer introduces, with praise, the first panelist, Miss Kilgallen. She then smiles and introduces the panelist to her left, Steve Allen or the humorist Bennett Cerf, with similar friendly words of praise or genial banter, and so it goes from panelist to panelist to the moderator Mr. Daly, all smiles, all geniality. When the challenger enters, Daly calls out, “Will you sign in please, sir!” or “madam,” as the case may be. The challenger writes his or her name on the chalkboard, and Daly pronounces it—“Melanie—Melanie Journet.” He rises and greets the contestant with a handshake, and always asks of the ladies, “Is it Miss or Mrs.?” From that point on he addresses or refers to the contestant by the honorific. “And as always, to get you started,” he says, “we will let you know that Miss Journet is salaried. We will begin the questioning with Miss Dorothy Kilgallen.”
When the contestant is good-looking, there will inevitably be comments about it, friendly, jocular, innocent praise. Before the questions begin, the panelists are allowed one random guess, often resulting in jests. “Mr. Dalton is so handsome,” says Arlene Francis, “I think he must be the prince of a small European country.” Or, “I don’t know what Miss Brown does,” says Hal “Dimples” Block, with a goofy boyish grin, “but she sure better not do it in traffic!”
After each “game,” Daly thanks the contestant and hopes, no matter what the winnings are, that he or she has had fun, and says that they certainly have enjoyed their time together. The ladies wear dresses, the men wear coats and ties. There’s no sniggering, no double-entendre—even when one Mary Falik was the contestant, and either nobody noticed what her name sounded like, or nobody much cared. But there’s something about the faces, too; a certain tilt of the head and freedom of happy expression, that says, “I don’t take myself too seriously, and what fun it is to be around pleasant people!”
We are not talking about great virtue. But there are preambles to great virtue, the natural habits that sweep the floor, brighten the room, and prepare the way for a cleaner and brighter gift. I’m not the best dressed man in any room, I don’t like standing on ceremony, and formality can be a painful thing for me. Still—do we really expect greatness of heart from someone whose deportment is mean, or whose speech is vicious? Do we expect backbone from a slouch?
Can such grace help conceal a moral wreck? Yes, possibly. Honey can mask a poisoned drink, too. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet. One more good thing to recover.