Wednesday, December 2, 2015


(September 1994, U.S.)

I have this persistent, ongoing argument with everyone I know that watches any sort of so-called "reality TV" and it's that there's nothing real about it whatsoever; my argument being that the moment you put any sort of situation in front of a television camera, the very high probability that the entire situation is staged and scripted most surely exists. Think about it! You think those people on SURVIVOR are in any sort of real mortal danger?? Of course they're not! There's an entire television crew there to assist them should anything serious ever occur! You think those stuck-up, large-breasted, plastic surgery bitches and their ass-kissing, aggravated husbands on any of those REAL HOUSEWIVES shows are real?? They're not real, people! They're actors portraying a part for money in front of a TV camera! Okay, so what's my point? I mean, I'm referring to 21st Century programming and Robert Redford's QUIZ SHOW tells a historically-true (we presume?) tale of the popular 1950s game show TWENTY ONE and those who were involved in its infamous scandal. My point, I suppose, is that during the Golden Age of television in the 1950s, I can't imagine that anyone watching programs where any sort of reality was involved, even game shows, ever conceived of any part of it being fake or rigged. TV viewers were naive back then (as if they're any brighter today??) and were apt to cling to the sort of intelligent TV heroes that would appear on quiz shows. From the moment we meet one of the film's primary characters Herb Stempel of Queens, NY (played by John Turturro), our first thought is very likely, "Man, what a dork!" I mean, really, take a look at this sad schmuck...

Nonetheless, Herb is a national celebrity because he's been consistently winning big money by answering difficult questions based on difficult topics week after week on live television. He's the epitome of intelligence and the poster boy for furthering the value of education to all the good little boys and girls of America...and the reason for all of this is because he's actually getting the answers ahead of time from the show's creators in order to keep the show's high ratings going. Inevitably, though, even those that need great ratings realize that Herb is just an ordinary, boring beatnik and now they want someone more colorful and a whole lot better looking! They find it in Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), a Columbia University instructor who comes from a well-known family of intellectuals. From the beginning of his part on TWENTY ONE, we know right off the bat that Charles, like Herb, is cheating because he's willingly agreed to take part in it when the temptation of victory, money and fame because just too damn tasty! And as any film that tells the story of scandal, it's typically told in two phases - the first being where all is well with the world and the thrill of the glory overtakes our protagonist, giving him the (temporary) pleasure of what he believes he's earned, including his picture on the cover of Time magazine...

(this is the real guy, people!)

This is the great salad period for Charles Van Doren. The second phase we can effectively call the part where the whistle is blown on the entire shebang and all the shit comes crashing down hard. Herb, having been ordered to "take a dive" by deliberately missing an easy question of what was the Best Oscar Picture of 1955 (the answer is MARTY!), is now pissed off that his career as a TV celebrity is over and is threatening to bring down Charles, the quiz show and its corrupt creators, as well. Throughout the entire rise and fall of the quiz show participants, the potential scandal of the show, as well as the moral ethics of television itself, is being investigated by a young Congressional lawyer Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow), who is constantly getting one step closer to the truth that will not only expose the show and its players, but the entire National Broadcasting Company (NBC), as well. Director Robert Redford, it would seem, deliberately avoids the long (perhaps unnecessary) drama of a long legal trial and manages to tighten up the matter in a somewhat brief hearing with the House Committee for Legislative Oversight. In the end, of course, everything and everyone is exposed and those who allowed themselves to trade in their morals and their honor for the fast buck and the fame end up paying the price of their soul.

Perhaps by today's film and storytelling standards, all of this scandal content seems like nothing more dramatic or serious than the average daytime TV soap opera. Perhaps, but one must bear in mind that this is not just a tale of television, but also one of a time of innocence, when those who sought the comfort and stability of their living room television set were ultimately made to feel like fools in that they could be so easily taken in by the powers-that-be and the players that occupied the big box they so needed to cling to for their daily American heroes. This was, perhaps, the power that television held over us during another era. It's quite possible, that even though times have changed drastically since those days, the tube's (sorry -flat screen's) power over us and how we interpret our own lives hasn't changed much at all. Fortunately, this is why I don't watch much television and instead focus my time, brain and efforts on film...otherwise I'd likely be writing a blog on TV instead! Oohh, let's even think of such dreadful possibilities!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Charles Van Doren: "Jesus, Dick, if someone offered you all this money to be on some rigged quiz show, instant fame, the works - would you do it?"
Richard Goodwin: "No. 'Course not."
Charles: "No? Throw the whole thing in, the cover of Time, Dave Garroway, fifty thousand a year to read poetry on television — would you do it?"
Richard: "No."
Charles: "And I would."

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