You may already have read about the death of Lee Sandlin, one of the best writers the Reader ever published; Michael Miner wrote a lovely piece about him yesterday, with links to some of the epic long-form pieces Lee published in the paper before his book career took off. The challenge of writing about a friend and colleague who died too soon (he left a book project not quite finished—every writer’s worst nightmare) is compounded in Lee’s case by the challenge of getting one’s arms around his impressive body of work. If I were you, I’d start with his cover story “Losing the War,” in which the rediscovery of a porcelain tiger owned by his father prompts a searching examination of how radically America was changed by World War II. But I’m not going to start there, because it’s just too intimidating.
No, I want to say something about the TV criticism Lee wrote for the Reader, because it’s a little closer to my wheelhouse as film editor and I was sharply influenced by it back in the day, when I was just starting to write criticism myself. When I asked Lee about these pieces—which ran occasionally in the late 90s and then again in the late oughts—he would sniff that he didn’t think much of them but that Alison True, the editor, had prodded him for more. I can understand how he felt: Why would someone so learned and perceptive, with a bibliography like his, want to be identified as a TV critic?
But Lee was no ordinary TV critic. “Flaubert once said he preferred tinsel to silver, because tinsel has all the same qualities as silver—plus pathos,” he wrote in a review of Babylon V. Not only could Lee get away with quoting Flaubert in a piece about Babylon V, he proved again and again that he loved good tinsel as much as the next guy. In fact Lee was a pretty seasoned connoisseur of trash TV, the kind that we all indulge in once in a while when we’re too tired to read Madame Bovary but that sends us back to the silver with a renewed appreciation for its luster. He just refused to write about TV the way its producers might have preferred or its target audience might have appreciated.
Take his review of Ugly Betty, a series widely proclaimed by critics to be a breath of fresh air and even “deeply subversive.” Like any good writer, Lee was offended by the devaluation of words such an appraisal represents. “I hate to be a spoilsport,” he wrote, “but isn’t calling a network TV show ‘deeply subversive’ kind of like calling a Fortune 500 company ‘deeply Marxist’? . . . Ugly Betty tries to question mainstream standards of beauty, but it doesn’t. It says it’s about class and status, except it isn’t. It wants to be about real people, but it’s only pretending. It’s supposed to be subversive TV, but it turns out to be just like regular TV. That’s what’s ugly about it.”
Lee always wrote from the perspective that words should mean what they say and that—even more crucial for someone writing about TV—reality was the most important word of all. Most TV critics are so worn down by the inherent falsity of the medium that they claim a documentary authenticity for anything that might get a degree or two closer to actual human experience. Lee wasn’t having any of that. ER, a medical drama praised for its truthful depiction of a big-city hospital, “takes up the . . . surreal and nightmarish dregs of modern America and hurtles through them with the ease of an arcade master racking up world-champion scores. Its accelerating narrative challenges, its perpetually racing camera, its rapid racket of medibabble—they all play out as a kind of flattery of the audience for its skill at keeping up.”
Ripping away the scales was his specialty. “The Brady Bunch wasn’t chaste because it was naïve,” he explained. “It was monstrously sophisticated, seeking out and expunging every hint of sex—of every recognizable form of human behavior—in order to present its sitcom formulas with the purity of equations in the void.” Fantasy Island “was never really about fantasies; they were just a pretext. It was an attack on the concept of celebrity. As with its companion show The Love Boat, the premise was just an excuse to bring on a parade of washed-up guest stars, who were being granted a last little bone of an acting job before they were consigned to oblivion. In a way, it was a perfect commentary on its time: back then fame was another bankrupt commodity that needed to be used up as quickly as possible so we could get on to the next disillusion.”
And who else would finger the most popular children’s programming of the day as a conspiracy to introduce toddlers to hallucinogenic drugs? “Teletubbies is ostensibly an educational program aimed at children as young as one year old—it’s shown at 9 AM and again at noon, between Mr. Rogers and Barney—but is in fact the most blatant piece of prodrug propaganda since Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. It’s a half hour of bright colors, absurdist plotting, and insinuating horror. I may not know much about kiddie TV, but I know an acid trip when I see one.”
I can understand why Lee got bored with the assignment; for him, critiquing TV series was like shooting fish in a barrel. But to his credit, he got off some of his best shots at hip shows that Reader readers probably liked a lot. “Nothing I’ve ever seen has ever made women look worse,” he wrote of Sex and the City. “You can ransack the archives of Spike TV, throw in the complete film libraries of Adam Sandler, Dane Cook, and Judd Apatow, and supplement them with the collected works of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer and you won’t find as unrelenting a portrayal of female humorlessness, avarice, petulance, vindictiveness, and off-the-charts narcissism.” Dexter, the Showtime series about a serial killer who murders other serial killers, was another offense against reality: “In the real world the chances that you’re going to meet your end at the hands of some mutant fetishist . . . is approximately zero. Why worry about it? Because it’s easier than worrying about the ordinary people around you who might decide that murder is the most straightforward solution to whatever problem they’re currently having in their lives.”
Reading over Lee’s old stuff makes me even sorrier that he’s gone, and that his era is gone too. As he was the first to admit, he arrived at the Reader at just the right time, when the paper was so fat and so starved for copy that a writer could get an editor’s go-ahead and an endless supply of column inches to dilate on whatever cockamamie subject intrigued him. Lee took advantage of the situation like no other writer, which is why some readers still save yellow, moldering print copies of the cover stories he wrote. “Losing the War” was written out of a fear that Americans were beginning to lose touch with the past that had shaped our parents and grandparents; writing about TV, Lee feared that we were beginning to lose touch with the present. And he was right.