The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

Craving Entertainment

by Jeremy Lloyd | December 1994-January 1995

Public forgiveness and TV Scandal.

Critics have dubbed Robert Red-ford's recent film Quiz Show as a modern morality tale and testimonial to America's loss of innocence. Thus far reviews have ignored the film's underlying witness to the changing loyalties in the nation's soul. In 1959, television had yet to become the primary medium by which the public acquired knowledge and truth. Redford's rendition of the "Twenty-One" game show scandal documents television's victory in craftily achieving this status of power.

In the final and most telling scene, congressional investigator Richard Goodwin watches helplessly as NBC and Geritol associates dodge justice while "Twenty-One" star Charles Van Doren confesses and suffers the blame alone. As one senator offers shaming words, the senate chamber reverberates with chastising applause, falling upon Van Doren like so many cracks of the whip. Hence the disgrace of 50 million duped viewers is heaped upon the hero-turned-criminal. For them the result is a reattained state of justification, as well as a swift restoration of trust in the medium of television (if ever there were any doubts).

For Van Doren it means losing his Columbia instructorship and accruing humiliation for doing what many of the viewers might have done. Although we no longer throw real stones, the results are still the same: Justice rolls off the back of the NBC executives and television gets off unscathed.

The film makes much of corruption in big business and apathy in Congress, but why spend two hours restating these assumptions? Perhaps corruption and apathy also lie elsewhere. Indeed, if television can successfully win over the allegiance of the American public in the face of an unforgivable exercise of power and technique, society may very well be nearing apotheosis.

At its close the film suggests something that augments the theme of responsibility. Off-camera the voices of NBC and Geritol executives justify the means by the ends: "We're not exactly hardened criminals; we give them what they want." Then the credits roll while the camera pans a television studio audience roaring (silently) with laughter. With subtlety this concluding image clinches the guilt of the hitherto unmentioned third party. We the film audience-staring at ourselves in the mirror-are caught in the act.

And we, the American television viewing audience, are also incriminated as the ignorant but all too willing catalysts to television's success. Redford eyes the potential for television's redemption-and our critical response to it-with pessimism.

Quiz Show frustrates Hollywood's tradition of instilling a sense of righteousness in a film audience by vanquishing the bad guys on screen; this time the enemy includes us. Richard Goodwin puts the situation in context: "I thought we were gonna get television; the truth is, television is going to get us." That a film warns us of this is ironically prophetic.

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