Critical assessments of television usually end up sorting through decades or genres, or singling out a landmark program.
Ken Tucker takes a novel and far more satisfying – and entertaining – approach in “Kissing Bill O’Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy” (St. Martin’s Press, 272 pages, $22.95).
Subtitled “100 Things to Love and Hate About TV,” the book slices the unending spool of television into precisely analyzed images, characters and moments, for good or ill.
There’s Jennifer Garner’s red wig on the “Alias” pilot (love); final episodes (hate); Ricky Nelson (love); “Seinfeld” theme music (hate); mom Donna Stone on “The Donna Reed Show” (love); mom Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (hate).
Laura Petrie, the “Ohhhhh, Rob” Laura played so fetchingly by Mary Tyler Moore? Say it ain’t so, Ken.
“Yes, she looked fabulous in those capri pants,” Tucker writes. “Yes, she would go on to become America’s sweetheart in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ “
But her role opposite Van Dyke was that of a “weak-willed, indulgent mother to her sappy little boy, Ritchie (Larry Matthews), all the more pernicious for being so beguiling to grown-ups,” he concludes.
If that’s not enough to provoke tears (and hate mail) from nostalgic baby boomers, how about his characterization of “Star Trek” as a “mush-brained, wooden-dialogued, sub-Rod Serling-style sci-fi parable for intergalactic equal rights.”
Fans of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” however, can sink blissfully into Tucker’s essay on son Ricky’s role as troubadour. After one episode’s typically artificial playlet about suburbia, Ricky emerges to wrap up with a song that “announces his true desire: ‘To pick up and go/Where the four winds blow,’ ” Tucker writes.
“In other words, Ricky is telling us he’d rather be doing exactly the opposite of what’s shown on ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ – teasing his female fans with the fantasy of being footloose and single and expressing those yearnings on a show under his father’s watch.”
Tucker, a former Entertainment Weekly TV critic who now reviews film for New York magazine, dissects his subject with thoughtful finesse.
Is it more than the medium deserves? No, he insists.
“There’s a whole generation of people who don’t dismiss television as the most escapist, flimsiest genre of entertainment,” he says. “There are lots of serious social issues that television raises … and there also is a lot of interesting artistic work being done in television.”
But he wants to encourage a more tough-minded approach to what TV offers now and offered to viewers as they grew up. Fond memory, he argues, shouldn’t be allowed to adjust the dial on shows that are old but far from classic.
“One thing I really wanted to react against was the whole idea of ‘I grew up in front of it, so it’s good. It lodged itself in my memory,’ ” Tucker says. “I hate that ‘It’s-so-bad-it’s-good’ aesthetic that’s taken hold in a lot of younger critics, and I wanted to explode that and say TV should be held to a higher standard.
“Just because you remember ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ from when you were growing up doesn’t mean this was a well-written show.”
Tucker, 51, tested his own threshold for critical blindness by revisiting some of his favorite childhood shows – westerns – at the Museum of Television & Radio.
Many series, including “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen, proved disappointing. But “The Rifleman” with Chuck Connors was a surprise; Tucker discovered future filmmaker Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”) listed in the credits as writer and director on many episodes.
“They really hold up as tight mini-westerns,” he said.
The discovery didn’t make it into his book, but there is an ode to Pamela Anderson’s chest as it paraded through “Home Improvement” and “Baywatch,” joyfully symbolizing the beguiling, forbidden-fruit spirit of sex on TV.
So how could Tucker relegate another babe, Miss Piggy, to the “hate” side of the ledger?
This one sounds personal – “I’m a Kermit man,” he declares – but again he argues his case persuasively.
Kermit was “the anarchic, unsentimental, obstreperous character and Miss Piggy just softened so much of the satire of the Muppets and had the entire country saying ‘Moi?’ instead of good old American, ‘Who, me?’ “