Friday, September 30, 2005

TV: Class Dismissed

Can’t anybody be low-rent on television any more?

The question is prompted by last night’s premiere of the ABC revival of THE NIGHT STALKER. The sometimes cheesy original series and the pair of genuinely scary TV movies it was based on have always been favorites of mine, and introduced me to the work of Richard Matheson.

The new version of STALKER, overseen by X-FILES producer Frank Spotnitz, is smartly made, with a visual style that draws on Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. Do I miss the dry wit and seersucker elegance of Darren McGavin? Naturally. But I’m no purist. Stuart Townsend is a fine actor who brings an edge to his portrayal of reporter Carl Kolchak. And Spotnitz has updated the show in other inventive ways.

Except for one, which isn’t his fault because it’s endemic to modern TV. The new Kolchak has too much money.

In the old show, Carl was a stringer for a bottom-of-the-barrel news service. Which made sense: a guy with a regular byline isn’t going to chase after the supernatural every week. McGavin’s Kolchak, with his cheap suit and his straw hat, was past caring about his reputation. All he wanted was the story.

In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina coverage, some on the right claimed that it was un-American to talk about class, that doing so was denying that the country was the land of opportunity. Firstly, bullshit. Secondly, like it or not, money or the lack thereof is going to have an impact on your decision making. That impact should factor into storytelling. Even on TV.

A reporter who’s never going to make the front page again will chase down stories no one else cares about. Just as a broken-down P.I. living in a trailer will take a different approach to the cases he investigates.

But the networks, in their compassion, don’t want to expose us to characters who might be seen as ‘losers.’ After all, it could affect us as consumers. So the new Kolchak isn’t just younger, he’s also a success, living in a gorgeous house that I’ve seen in at least two movies instead of a pressboard hovel in the Valley. His obsession with the paranormal still has to be explained – he can’t just find it interesting – so now he’s saddled with a tragic backstory involving his wife’s murder.

There are exceptions to this class-unconsciousness. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is about wealthy people being thrown off the gravy train, and much of the fun in the late, lamented (at least by me) EYES came from Tim Daly’s reveling in being rich. I’m convinced MY NAME IS EARL has scored in its initial outings because the character and setting are atypical for TV.

One other note on STALKER: I thought digitally adding footage of McGavin from the old show was ... kinda creepy. And not in a good way.