Monday, August 31, 2009


Do Americans want Sherlock Holmes showing up in real life?

Off the top of my head I can name four current television shows which focus on a protagonist who can discern the truth where ordinary mortals can't: Law and Order Criminal Intent on USA/NBC; The Mentalist on CBS; Psych (USA); and Lie to Me (Fox). What they all have in common- and what sets them apart from old fashioned traditional TV detective shows (Monk being an example of the old timey show, albeit with the odd factor of an OCD detective who appears at times to be an ineffectual coward)- is the Sherlock Holmes aspect that allows each protagonist to discern whether people are telling the truth.

The lead character in Criminal Intent, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, explicitly based on Sherlock Holmes, explains how people's facial tics and expressions reveal their lies. Psych is a mock detective show which focuses on a self trained observer who discovers that no one will listen to his analysis unless he pretends to be receiving psychic visions. (James Roday's fake psychic character occasionally references The Mentalist during his show- all in good fun, of course.) The most watched of the bunch, The Mentalist, stars Australian Simon Baker as a man who has reinvented himself after a personal tragedy. Once a well heeled charlatan who earned his living by pretending to read minds and commune with the dead, the unsolved murder of his wife and daughter by a notorious serial killer led him to renounce his desire for worldly possessions and dedicate his skills in human observation to crime solving as a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation.

Then there is the over the top Lie to Me, which is obviously an attempt to piggyback on the commercial success of The Mentalist, even down to using an Englishman (Tim Roth) playing a man who can instantly tell when anyone- seriously, anyone!- is telling the truth or not. After the 55th time Roth and his crackerjack acolytes brace suspects to their faces and accuse them of lying- or telling the truth- the trick gets old. The one penetrating moment in the show came when Roth's ex-wife (played by former Flash Dance star Jennifer Beals) admits that marriage to Roth was less than blissful because he was compelled to constantly inform her of her thoughts and feelings which he, the master interrogator, could read from her expressions. To the rest of us mere mortals, that sounds like a marriage made in Hell.

So why are American television viewers so entranced with shows featuring people who can identify the liars, con men, and other criminals who prey on ordinary folks? What is happening in our society that we feel we need these kinds of heroes- each one played as an extreme eccentric?

Well, for one, we have advertisers. Does anyone believe anything in ads? Will drinking that beer, using that body fragrance, or using that cell phone really cause beautiful women to fawn over us (or Catherine Zeta Jones to arrive on our doorstep)? Doubtful. Of course, Madison Avenue has been crafting lying commercials for decades, so that's nothing new. For gosh sakes, decades ago they used to extol the health benefits of cigarettes!

Then there are politicians. From "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq to Obama's "death panels" that will kill off grandma or Sarah Palin's year old baby, we have been subjected to lying elected officials for the last eight years plus. Problem with that is, other than George Washington, who was as close to a saint as this country ever found in a president, pretty much every administration since 1796 has felt the need to twist the truth- or suppress it- in the name of national security or some other essential without which the republic would surely perish.

Finally we have news casters. The lack of gravitas in current news anchors was highlighted after the death of Walter Cronkite, who, after his retirement in 1981, retrospectively became the most admired newscaster in history (revisionist history- there were excellent, intelligent, and honest news anchors before and during his time, including Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley, and Eric Sevareid). Instead of being able to rely on television or print news to convey an honest attempt at truth telling or revealing the nefarious wizards behind the many curtains in Washington or on Wall Street, we have slowly come to realize that they have become part of the circus.

The lines have blurred, with General Electric owning NBC, Disney's got ABC, and, worst of all, Rupert Murdoch created and controls Fox. Instead of news, we have infotainment or, in the case of Fox, outright lies. The old saw in local television news was "if it bleeds, it leads," referring to the public fascination with violence and crime. At least the old time crime reporters weren't moonlighting as criminals. That's no longer the case, as the new saw is "shouting heads and confrontation trump accurate analysis." If an issue is important- health care and the Iraq War being two recent examples- then the mainstream media is sure to be hard at work muddying the waters rather than revealing underlying truth. Each "side" (and there have to be sides, no issue can stand alone) is given equal credence, regardless of the relative merit in their positions. We've been treated to former generals on major networks, secretly working for the Pentagon, pretending to be independent analysts during the Iraq War. Former Newsweek Reporter Richard Wolfe was able to appear on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann for several months while secretly (unbeknownst to MSNBC viewers) enjoying a career working for a Washington lobbying firm, "Public Strategies."

The moral of this story is: if the public taste is the determining factor, we only want truth telling and lies revealed in our fictional television, not on our newscasts.


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