With another year of television upfronts pulling the plug on much-beloved shows (Community, Trophy Wife, and Enlisted fans, among others, feeling the heat this year), it’s worth remembering (or at least telling yourself) that the television industry is a lot of nonsense that is, at best, a guessing game, and, at worst, an evil force bent on human subjugation. You know, whatever gets you through the day. At any rate, the film industry certainly agrees, ever-fearful of TV’s potential to rob them of their audience, so here are a selection of films that expertly skewer the vast wasteland.
9.) Soapdish (Michael Hoffman, 1991)
Hoffman’s backstage portrait of a popular soap opera might seem narrowly targeted, but it illustrates the feeling that even viewers of more conventional, modern programming might sense – that the people behind it really are just making it all up as they go along. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by soap operas for this reason (though more conventional, modern programs like Lost certainly contain similar joys of spontaneous creativity), that this structure is necessarily built into the act of their creation, and Hoffman (working from a screenplay by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman) renders it in all its absurdity, revelry, and luridness. And with a cast packed with stars and talent (including Robert Downey, Jr., Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Shue, Whoopi Goldberg, Carrie Fisher, Gary Marshall, and Teri Hatcher), the film comes alive in each and every moment.
8.) Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)
Imagine you’re in a real band, playing real live shows, recording real music, but you are only so because you were hired to play that band on television? Head grapples extensively with this, showing the members of The Monkees trying to situate themselves in a world in which their creativity, even their very personalities, are carefully curated and managed in order to optimize viewership. That the film itself often feels as though one is flipping channels further emphasizes just how vague and ever-changing the actual demands of television can be.
7.) UHF (Jay Levey, 1989)
There’s something kind of beautiful about Weird Al Yankovic’s big screen outlet for a thousand ideas, no matter how seemingly dumb. If you’ll excuse a touch of intellectualism, the film really becomes an expression of every TV viewer’s fantasy. If not, well, I doubt I’m the only one who still thinks “You get to drink from…THE FIREHOSE” is one of cinema’s great jokes.
6.) It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1955)
If this were a general ranking of the films listed here, rather than the role television plays in them, this would actually be at the top. Donen & Kelly’s film is about three war buddies who reunite ten years later, only to find their lives haven’t exactly turned out as they imagined. It’s deeply melancholic, exploring the many unexpected turns life can take, and the way our lives add up to a series of day-to-day decisions rather than grand design. Late in the film, however, their reunion is capitalized upon by a live New York TV show that aims to spotlight exceptional stories of average Americans, showing that much of the national feelings towards the war were – and would continue to be – the result of commercialism and casual propaganda.
5.) The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
I don’t know if this is just a trait of people who watch a lot movies and television, but I like to think we all occasionally imagine our lives as though they were being seen on television. Well, The Truman Show illustrates just how horrifying that would actually be, as Truman’s each and every moment of honest emotion (including, most damningly, his final escape) becomes co-opted and carefully branded for consumption by a team of network producers.
4.) The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964)
A team of managers, agents, publicists, and stylists are horrified to learn of the death of their famous comedian client – after all, he’s their bread and butter! Convinced that they, with all their expertise, could make a star out of just about anybody, they select the bellboy at their hotel (none other than Jerry Lewis, of course). The only problem? The bellboy has not a single talent, nor even a basic sense of public grace. But surely, somewhere, between the stage, the radio, and television, there is some fit for this unruly figure? The Patsy goes to show that whatever the attempts to manufacture success on television (or any arm of entertainment), the public will ultimately have its say.
3.) The Girl Can’t Help It / Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1956 and 1957)
The Girl Can’t Help It begins with one of the great shots in the history of cinema. Tom Ewell steps forward to introduce the picture in the frame that had practically defined cinema up to that point, and which had come to be associated more with television – boxy and black-and-white. He then flicks the sides of the screen, expanding them outward, and instructs the picture to turn to color. The widescreen, Technicolor aesthetic was developed expressly to battle television, and with such grace and simplicity, Tashlin asks why we would ever want it any other way. In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Tashlin inverts this, gradually reducing the frame around Tony Randall until he can barely be seen. The difference is palpable – in The Girl Can’t Help It, Tashlin is ecstatic at cinema’s possibilities; in Rock Hunter, he seems angry that viewers would choose otherwise. Much of the plot is motivated by lies told on television, all with the pure purpose of holding viewers hostage.
2.) They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
To think, I first watched this film for its five-and-a-half-minute fistfight. And let’s make no mistake, that fistfight is, indeed, righteous. But it’s the film’s conception and rendering of a grotesque, giddily outrageous plot by aliens to control our minds through the media, that has made it such a classic film. And, you know, the fact that it’s Rowdy Roddy Piper who uncovers it.
1.) Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
The common line for this film is that, well, holy cow, everything it predicted ended up happening! How wild! Yet, the more I think about and watch the film, the more I admire screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s insight, not into the inevitable result of corporate media takeover, but rather the real fabric of the time in which he lived. The specific references are so of-the-moment (Black Panthers, Saudis, the sexual revolution) would become dated even a decade later, and there was plenty of commodification happening all around him. Network isn’t a great work because it saw the future; it’s a great work because it saw the present with greater clarity than nearly anything else.