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Paddy Chayefsky Turns on the Television
by Jim Hanas

Late in the movie Network, Max Schumacher, a wizened television news executive, confronts Diana Christensen, the ratings rainmaker who has usurped both his position and his marital fidelity while turning the fictional UBS network into a sensational circus of mad prophets and fortunetellers.

“You’re television incarnate, Diana,” he tells her. “Indifferent to suffering. Insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death. They’re all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy.”

Paddy Chayefsky, who won his third Oscar for Network’s screenplay, was himself television incarnate once. A pioneer of the medium in the early 1950s, the Bronx-bred playwright was the leading figure in the rise of the one-hour television drama, as well as one of its prime theoreticians and advocates. His teleplay for Marty, a poignant portrait of a homely butcher’s search for love, was the first television drama to make the leap to the big screen, earning him his first screenwriting Oscar in 1955. For the next two and a half decades, until his death in 1981 at age fifty-eight, he continued to write for both stage and screen, commanding unprecedented control over his projects, including screenplays for The Goddess, The Americanization of Emily and The Hospital, for which he won his second Oscar.

Chayefsky was a diminutive but stocky figure equipped with uncommon tenacity. A producer once compared him to an office safe, “one that fits under the counter and is impossible to move.” In one sense, Chayefsky never strayed far from his roots in television and the minutely detailed “drama of introspection” for which he thought it and the American psyche were uniquely suited. In another, he couldn’t have strayed farther when, in 1976, he unleashed Network, his scathingly satirical indictment of the spectacle television had become.

Somewhere in the intervening decades, it seems, Chayefsky had turned on television. Or perhaps it had turned on him. “I still write realistic stuff,” he explained to Time magazine when the film was released. “It’s the world that’s gone nuts, not me. It’s the world that’s turned into a satire.”


The twenty-nine-year-old Chayefsky came to television after a stint in the Army and a few bad brushes with Hollywood, which he fled in anger in 1948 after losing creative control of a script, a tendency that would repeat itself late in his career when he had his credit on 1980’s Altered States replaced with a pseudonym after infamous quarrels with director Ken Russell. He started as a writer for NBC’s Philco-Goodyear series in 1952, where his work not only defined his early, realist style, but also the medium itself. Despite the association of his name with the golden age of television, Chayefsky contributed to the medium for less than three years, during which he penned just nine one-hour dramas. Four of these - Marty, The Bachelor Party, Middle of the Night and The Catered Affair - made it to the large screen (all but the last, which was adapted by fellow television scribe Gore Vidal, with Chayefsky-penned screenplays).

His studied slices-of-life displayed a mastery of the vernaculars of the everyday and his belief that what television necessarily lacked, for technical reasons, in breadth could be made up for in depth. Intimate dramas, or “minutely detailed studies of small moments of life,” were what television afforded viewers, according to Chayefsky, and, in turn, what viewers wanted from television.

“People are beginning to turn into themselves, looking for personal happiness,” he wrote in an early collection of television scripts. “The offices of psychoanalysts are flooded with disturbed human beings; the psychiatric clinics of hospitals are too terribly understaffed to handle the demands of the public. Hardly a newspaper, at least in New York, does not carry a syndicated psychiatrist or similar columnist. The jargon of introspection has become everyday conversation. Our national bestsellers are nonfiction books dealing with ways of achieving personal adjustment to life. The theater and all its sister mediums can only be a reflection of their times, and the drama of introspection is the drama that the people want to see. It may be foolish to say, but television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century.”

This sort of sweeping cultural diagnosis would later become an integral part of Chayefsky’s wrathful satires, but even in the 1950s the writer was prone to reflecting on the machinations of a blooming media culture in a manner at once practical, cynical and hopeful.

His foreword to his collected television plays, for example, is almost entirely given over to a description of the business, rather than the craft, of television drama. “The advertising agencies are not villains whose sole purpose is to destroy the artistic integrity of a dramatic script,” he writes with characteristic pragmatism. “But, by definition, they are concerned with selling their clients’ products, and the twenty-two or fifty-three minutes of drama that go between the commercials are considered an essential part of the sales talk. The agency is most concerned with neither offending nor disturbing possible customers, a policy that stringently limits the scope of the television drama.”

Chayefsky would offer a similarly wide-eyed analysis of the market forces facing the makers of “art films” in his 1958 preface to the screenplay for The Goddess, a film in which he began to take on what he took to be the superficial vacuity - the fundamental unreality - of mass media culture. Transparently based, despite the author’s insistence to the contrary, on the career of Marilyn Monroe, The Goddess tells the story of Emily Ann Faulkner, a young girl from Beacon City, Maryland, who, as Rita Shawn, gets caught up in, manipulates and is ultimately ruined by the hurly-burly of Hollywood. The first of his movies not to originate on television, Chayefsky hoped the lead role would go to Monroe herself (Broadway actress Kim Stanley ended up in the part), and it foreshadows the icon’s death by several years, as Shawn succumbs to the emptiness of her own fame. “She never had a chance from the beginning,” observes the star’s childhood sweetheart in the movie’s final scene, prefiguring Network’s theme of the human price paid for abandoning reality in favor of disposable illusion.

Chayefsky would take on this price more literally in his 1964 film adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s novel The Americanization of Emily. Huie’s novel is a dramatic work set around the D-Day invasion, while Chayefsky’s absurdly comic adaptation seizes on a minor plot point that has a Rear Admiral obsessed with making a documentary film of the invasion to confirm that the “first dead man on Omaha beach” is indeed a sailor. Assigned to the task is Lt. Commander Charles E. Madison, a profligate coward played by James Garner, who eventually attains fame by becoming said dead man.

Emily also shows Chayefsky turning away from the pitch-perfect dialogue for which his television scripts were famous and toward a more baroque style, captured in Garner’s eloquently theoretical mini-sermons on cowardice, Lt. Commander Madison’s professed religion. Chayefsky’s brand of high-handed hyperbole would be perfected in George C. Scott’s bellowing tracts in the medical satire The Hospital and later in the messianic rantings of Howard Beale, Network’s “mad prophet of the airwaves.”

Much is made of Network’s superficial prescience, forecasting, as it seems to have, such latter-day media trends as reality programming and reckless, chest-pounding punditry. But the film is about the past as much as it is about the future. It tracks Chayefsky’s own disillusionment with television, which he no longer sees as a forum for introspection, but as a medium that not only abets, but requires, insincerity.

The movie begins earnestly enough, with two old newsies - Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and Max Schumacher (William Holden) - getting drunk. Beale’s days are numbered as the news anchor for the struggling UBS network. He’ll be fired soon, and he mumbles about killing himself during the evening news.

“A 50 share, easy,” his colleague jokes, setting off the darkly comic premise that occupies the rest of the film.

On the next newscast, Beale announces that he in fact intends to commit suicide on the air in one week. “That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show,” he says.

The ratings go through the roof, and, after receiving a vision of unknown origin, Beale turns anti-television prophet, his cash value harnessed by Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an opportunistic executive who uses him as the anchor for a stable of spectacle programming.

“Turn off your television sets. Turn them off now,” a frenzied Beale implores viewers. “Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off.”

He collapses in a heap to uproarious applause.

The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael savaged Network when it was released, accusing Chayefsky of heavy-handed condescension and sloppy nostalgia for the supposed plenitude of pre-televisual culture. “There are a lot of changes in the society which can be laid at television’s door, but soullessness isn’t one of them,” she wrote. “TV may have altered family life and social intercourse; it may have turned children at school into entertainment seekers. But it hasn’t taken our souls, any more than movies did, or the theater and novels before them.”

Kael’s charge of sentimentalism is not entirely off the mark. Holden’s Schumacher is a hard-nosed romantic, a figure from an earlier time surrounded by soulless humanoids, foremost among them Christensen, who, like Rita Shawn in The Goddess, is existentially consumed by “shrieking nothingness.” Beale meanwhile urges viewers to turn off their sets and look to themselves, “because that’s the only place you’re ever going find any real truth,” echoing Chayefsky’s early view of television as an introspective medium.

But beyond its author’s nostalgia, Network contains an argument about the peculiar property of what Beale dubs “the most awesome goddamned force in the whole godless world.” The more Beale urges viewers to tune out, the higher the ratings soar. The Mao Tse Tung Hour, a program that airs the terrorist activities of the Ecumenical Liberation Army - an anti-capitalist cabal that’s part SLA, part Black Panthers - only amasses more capital for the network. Kael criticizes the latter invention as reactionary, taking it as Chayefsky’s jab at the radical left’s willingness to sell-out. But in fact it is about television’s resilient ability to buy-in, to make any and every statement serve the ratings and the bottom line, even and especially statements that appear to subvert the medium itself. Christensen doesn’t want to dampen their message, after all, but to capture it in all its revolutionary glory. On television, revolution isn’t a threat. It’s money in the bank. And Beale’s spiraling sermons on the evils of television only lead viewers to embrace them all the more.

It’s telling that Beale’s ratings only flag when he begins to speak the truth - not a human, liberating truth, but the actual, corporate truth of television. When one of the anchor’s tirades fouls a corporate merger, Beale is called in to see Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the head of the network’s parent company, where he is instructed in the one “holistic system of systems.”

“You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen and howl about America and democracy,” he is told. “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T,” and he is ordered to take this message to the people.

Beale’s new message of the inevitability of dehumanization and the death of the individual - the truth behind the “mass” in “mass media” - is a ratings killer. It doesn’t sell. When the soulless soul of television is revealed, it loses its power. Chayefsky’s point is clear: what he’d once hoped would be a vehicle for honest self-reflection, for sincerely portraying “small moments of life,” has become a medium whose very existence depends on its insincerity, on saying the opposite of what it means, on preaching freedom when it projects enslavement. It is not, after all, Beale the prophet, but Beale turned mouthpiece for the unappetizing truth of mass culture who becomes the “first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

Ralph Nader reports that he was recently offered $25,000 to utter the phrase “another shameless attempt by Nike to sell shoes” in a Nike television spot. And many media observers have lately drawn attention to television’s ability - indeed it is a need - to present constant critiques of the institutionalized culture of which it is the center.

Novelist David Foster Wallace has called this the “aura” of irony that surrounds television, most pointedly in so-called anti-advertising spots, which self-mockingly criticize the conventions of advertising while inviting viewers to “congratulate themselves for getting the joke,” to stand out from the crowd, even as they’re counted as part of television’s massive audience.

Thomas Frank, editor of the journal The Baffler and author of The Conquest of Cool, has likewise observed that purveyors of mass culture have long embraced a critique of mass culture, a technique that harnesses “public mistrust of consumerism to consumerism itself.”

It is this dichotomy that makes Chayefsky’s script prescient and Howard Beale tragic. Although the latter’s appeals to democracy, individuality and humanity are unquestionably sincere, they are necessarily ineffectual, as viewers tune-in only to honor their own rebellion against television. Network presents an inverted world in which Chayefsky’s early, optimistic view of the small screen can be endorsed, as loudly as you please, but not heard.

It is a bleak view; one that mirrors the darkness of Chayefsky’s own disillusionment. “We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition,” the writer told Time. “This is the basic problem of television. We’ve lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity.”

This disillusionment mirrors, furthermore, that of the viewing public generally over the last four decades, riddled with contradictions though it may be. Poll after poll shows confidence in television news programming at an all-time low and a viewing public grown weary of incessant sensationalism, while at the same time each hoopla-ridden spectacle coincides with new all-time ratings highs.

Meanwhile, more recent pop cultural criticisms of television increasingly indulge, rather than expose, the medium’s liberation theology. The Truman Show (1998), in many ways, addresses the same themes as Network: real life, exploited by an ominous, hegemonic force. But the threat is defused. Nothing unfolds, except, ultimately, freedom. It’s a fairy tale, like The Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A decade from now, children will beg to stay up late to watch Jim Carrey escape from television.

When Network was first screened by television executives, it yielded twin responses of delight and horror. Serious-minded newsies, like Barbara Walters, worried that viewers might take the movie’s world of ratings-mad executives, messianic anchormen and televangelizing soothsayers seriously. Others thought they should. Television alum Gore Vidal observed, “I’ve heard every line from that film in real life.”

A year later, CBS paid $5 million for the rights to air Chayefsky’s controversial satire. “Like I said,” came the writer’s response, “they’ll do anything for a good rating, even eat their young.”

Jim Hanas is a staff writer and media columnist for the alternative newsweekly The Memphis Flyer. He has also written about pirate radio, men's magazines and bad tattoos for In These Times, SOMA and Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

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