Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bionic Slumber

If The Six Million Dollar Man is an action/adventure show, how is it that these reruns on DVD have the unfailing power to put me right to sleep?

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing. It’s just that I know I can depend on this program to be a reliable narcotic, so I pop the discs into the player when I know it’s about naptime. I’ve run the episode with the bionic Oscar Goldman clone several times, but always manage to miss the dramatic showdown where Steve Austin knocks his head off.  I snore right through it, that kinetic sound effects of Steve’s bionic limbs singing me to sleep.

I don’t think this is specific to The Six Million Dollar Man, of course. Pretty much all TV is “snugglevision,” formulated to keep us drowsy and susceptible to the advertising that controls it. But I think these older TV shows seemed a little more honest in their predictability. Today, popular TV dramas work to maintain the illusion of advancing plot (Don Draper divorces Betty) while carefully serving up precisely what keeps the viewers coming back (everyone hated Betty). It seems like a tricky balancing act, but it’s just another TV formula as reliable as Fred Rogers feeding his fish.

As you fellow elders may recall, The Six Million Dollar Man had a spinoff series in The Bionic Woman. Considering that television only had three major networks back then, this seems like a high percentage of bionic content in one’s weekly TV diet. But all the better to set patterns of predictability and run the resulting product down the conveyor belt into our gaping gullets. Bionic superspies were the Westerns of Seventies television.

Does that seem too cynical? Listen, I admire the clockwork efficiency of TV productions like this. To me, the appeal of a careful viewing of The Six Million Dollar Man (the parts I see before I pass out, anyway) is marveling at how much money they saved (this show did NOT cost six million dollars). Richard Anderson (not to be confused with Richard Dean Anderson, he of the MacGuyver duct tape skills), who portrayed Oscar Goldman, could present the illusion of a sprawling government agency by virtue of a few phone calls to unseen bureaucrats. Steve Austin kept the scripts and budgets uncomplicated by having no home or personal life. And for a show with such an advanced sci-fi premise, it kept viewers content with a bionic man who showed off his super powers only by running a bit and kicking down the occasional door. The gimmick of demonstrating his super speed by running the film in slow motion was pure, penny-pinching genius.

In the end, TV shows like this seem to float on a shared delusion that the initial pitch for the show – in this case, presented in the opening montage of guys in hospital gowns fondling robot limbs – was exciting enough to excuse the lack of action-packed payoff in any given episode. Watch any TV drama from the Seventies, from Kojak to Kung Fu, and it’s pretty astounding how little actually happens in each installment. But that’s the point: it’s satisfying enough that the basic premise is likable. The act of sitting through the program is an exercise in comfortable familiarity.

And so I settle on the couch, secure that nothing very engaging or interesting will threaten my relaxation as I slumber through The Six Million Dollar Man’s low-key adventures. It’s better than counting bionic sheep.

1 comment:

  1. I think the artwork you did about William Powell with Asta was really done brilliantly.