When it comes to what my friends think about TV and popular culture, I’m a tolerant man. I once listened to an argument about the Three Stooges between a traditionalist who held that Curly was “a true comic genius” and a cutting-edge subversive troublemaker who insisted that, all sentimentality aside, the episodes with Curly’s replacement Shemp were “objectively funnier.” At least five minutes went by before I began screaming. But everybody has a limit, and I have discovered mine. A couple of days ago, a friend asked me what my favorite TV shows were. I don’t remember what I answered–Babylon 5, The Jenny Jones Show, the Ronco food dehydrator infomercial (I can’t get over how many people in the audience call homemade beef jerky the answer to their prayers)–but at some point I mentioned The Simpsons. My friend then said the following:

“The Simpsons? Well, I like the episodes that Matt Groening had something to do with. I don’t bother watching any of the others.”

Maybe you think this is an unexceptionable remark. It’s probably the sort of thing you’ve said yourself about the creator of a cult show–that, say, Twin Peaks fell down and died the moment David Lynch left the room, or that Green Acres would have been lost without Paul Henning. But consider this: you can’t tell from the production credits of The Simpsons whether Matt Groening was involved in the writing of a particular episode. He might have ghostwritten the entire script; he might have let that week’s episode slide and just collected his check. So what my friend was saying was that he could deduce Groening’s presence by the content of the episode itself. He was laying claim to a taste so refined that he could recognize–and recognize, mind you, from the first few moments (otherwise how could he “not bother watching” the episodes that failed his test?)–some faint tang of superior wit, some quattrocento brush stroke, that betrayed the hidden hand of the master.

Now, I’m perfectly prepared to believe my friend. For all I know, he can tell whether Groening so much as stopped by the production office that week just to say hello. But the ability to make such delicate discriminations should be confined to some inherently worthy human endeavor, like the best performance of Wagner’s Ring, or the finest microbrewery beers; if we keep applying it to issues like the authorship of a TV cartoon show, it’s going to take us the way of the dinosaurs. We can’t be expected to make the evolutionary cut if we’re all obsessed by whether Hanna or Barbera was responsible for the best installments of Huckleberry Hound.

TV isn’t about authorship. You shouldn’t try to figure out who’s responsible for it. Nobody is: it just sort of happens. Who was the auteur behind the year’s most brilliant, intellectually complex and resonant TV viewing experience–O.J. Simpson’s farewell tour of the LA freeways? There wasn’t one. It was free improvisation, wholly generated out of TV technology. Could Matt Groening or David Lynch or even Paul Henning have been so experimental? Three hours of a slowly cruising Ford Bronco as seen from a helicopter–minimalist video at its most punishingly abstract–and it drew a bigger audience than the moon landing. So much for those snobs who think Americans don’t like avant-garde art. The symbolism grew so thick you couldn’t breathe. It magically expanded from a teaser for Inside Edition into a Greek myth: the fallen hero riding inexorably to his doom, with cheering crowds lining the streets through the last dark miles of his journey.

It was what TV does best–spontaneously investing a freakish oddity with a kind of dreamlike grandeur, as though some forgotten, primordial archetype was forcing itself up through the triviality of the regular product. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only reason to watch TV at all. The worst mistake you can make is to look for morsels of individual creative intelligence. There aren’t enough–you’ll starve to death. But every time you turn the set on, you’re assaulted by mystery.

Consider MTV’s The Real World. This is alleged to be a documentary: a group of typical young people are set up in a fabulously luxurious apartment, and everything they do there is videotaped–sort of like a slasher movie, in which the dumb teenagers trapped in the empty house are stalked unrelentingly by cameramen. But instead of the Beavis-and-Butt-head angst you might expect, the series quickly gathers an atmosphere of pagan sacrifice. Two seasons in a row now, events have played out like a particularly nasty chapter in an anthropology textbook.

Each fresh crop of roommates has been chosen by MTV because they are the applicants with the least chance of getting along together. But they put aside their differences and forge an archaic blood bond, by focusing their collective loathing on a scapegoat–an arbitrarily chosen member of the group who seems, in some foredestined way, to be provoking his own martyrdom. Last season the victim was a would-be stand-up comedian so tightly wound he detonated at least once an episode. The others evicted him midway through the season, after a murky incident of sexual and racial acrimony that gave the whole series a foul aftertaste. This season the producers decided to cast the scapegoat themselves: they found a stunningly barbaric bike messenger who calls himself Puck (just to play up the mythic resonance), and invited him to expose the other residents as feeble, mealymouthed slaves to bourgeois conventions of cleanliness and good behavior. He did, if only because they were almost supernaturally eager to find a way to get along with his raging offensiveness. It took weeks of his nightmarish provocation before they finally banded together: and then, as somberly as druid priests at Stonehenge, they spared his life (to the evident disappointment of the most high-minded members of the group) and exiled him into the outer darkness.

TV nonfiction of whatever form–newsmagazine, documentary, national or local news, inherently frivolous like The Real World or somber and authoritative like 60 Minutes–continually reverts to myth. The 60 Minutes crew may prefer more romantic and contemporary myths (they’re fond of boys’ adventure stories in which the Hemingwayesque reporter journeys to the camp of the Evil Foreign Terrorists) but the fairy-tale atmosphere remains. Of course, it doesn’t become truly oppressive until you watch the local news, which, at least in Chicago, appears to have been taken over entirely by followers of the Brothers Grimm. Sinister fables flower there, about predatory priests and home-alone children; magical cures and poisons appear and fade from one “Healthwatch” segment to the next. Local news has also become Michael Jackson’s ideal habitat. No one pretends any longer that he is an earthly being; his weird adventures have more in common with those of Osiris or Loki and have thus become core poetic motifs for bards like Linda MacLennan.

I can’t imagine any creative artist able to compete with the forces of collective myth. So instead I’ve decided to stick with shows that–if only by accident–make the most eccentric and unpredictable use of TV’s ever-narrowing set of acceptable mythic archetypes. In other words, I keep switching over to see what’s up on Baywatch.

Granted, it’s a tough show to understand. I’m still convinced we haven’t yet had the whole premise revealed to us–my guess is that the lifeguards aren’t human beings at all, but mutant androids who’ve escaped from their lab and are attempting to blend into ordinary life. This is why none of them ever leave the beach for any reason: they don’t need to eat or sleep, and the beach is the only environment where their rudimentary social skills go unremarked. (The only remaining mystery is, given their buoyancy, how they stay submerged long enough to save anybody from drowning.)

Anyway, the main zone of mythic tension is the patriarch of the android clan, Mitch, as incarnated by David Hasselhoff. He may seem like a standard-issue superhero, but just like Achilles or Orestes, he has a secret torment: a supernatural visitant, who continually goads him to some spectacular new height of courage. Since he can’t reveal the true nature of his persecutor to his fellow lifeguards, he tells them that this demonic being is his ex-wife.

They believe him, of course, having been bred for their aerodynamic properties rather than their intelligence. But we in the audience aren’t fooled. There is a giveaway–the ex-wife is played by an actress, Wendie Malick, who specializes in supernaturally malevolent ex-wives. She’s spent years torturing the hapless hero on the HBO sex farce Dream On. There, the hero desperately wanted her back (even though he was otherwise having better luck with women than Don Giovanni did), but she couldn’t be bothered, because her new husband, whom we never saw on camera, was really the greatest human being in the history of the world–a close personal friend of Donald Trump and Mother Teresa, who cured diseases by day and wrote hit Broadway musicals at night. (When they finally killed him off, they set the funeral service at the UN.)

Compared to Dream On, Baywatch is squalid naturalism. So Mitch’s ex-wife has had to restrain herself. For several seasons she stuck to petty humiliations, like forcing Mitch to go to their high school reunion so that his prosperous classmates could snicker at his low-caste life. Fortunately, the reunion was held at the beach–Mitch in an idle moment saved somebody from drowning. But this last season she pushed him to the ultimate test: she showed up with a spectacularly wealthy hunk (possibly her husband from Dream On), claimed he was her new fiance, and demanded from Mitch custody of their son.

This episode has been the high point of Baywatch so far, if only because it so perfectly summed up the show’s unique blend of the mythically crazed and the listless. The ex-wife/custody-of-the-son premise used to be churned out as a three-scene subplot on CHiPs or T.J. Hooker–but here it was blown up into an epic two-part cliff-hanger. It was almost designed as a rebuke to those stuffy intellectuals who keep talking about the decaying attention span of America’s youth: you needed the patience of a tortoise to wait out each sluggish twitch of the plot.

The new fiance, of course, was a creep so vile they might as well have lit him like Dracula and put a loud organ chord on the sound track. But Mitch alone saw through him–the ex-wife and son fell for him like pod people, and eagerly joined him on his private jet for a flight down to Mexico. I’m sure you’re ahead of me here: the plane crashed, fortuitously enough, in the waters just off the shore that Mitch patrolled. It was the work of a moment for him to summon up a massive air-sea rescue mission, involving Coast Guard cutters and a crack scuba team (all lifeguards evidently have the authority to do this), which he then personally led into action at the crash site.

Meanwhile, inside the submerged plane, the passenger compartment was slowly–very slowly–filling with water. Mitch’s son, trained in proper emergency etiquette, treated the crisis as a temporary irritation, like an hour wasted in a stuck elevator. But the fiance went completely to pieces and spent a good fifteen minutes of air time wailing about how they were all going to die. Unfortunately, Mitch’s ex-wife was unconscious throughout, so she missed this revelation of her intended’s nature (of course, given her own nature, this may have been exactly what she was looking for in a man). Afterwards, in a poignant twist, Mitch made his son promise never to reveal to her how her new husband had behaved.

The final showdown was surprisingly diminuendo. Mitch cut short the soggy loser’s sniveling self-justifications with a kind of half-stifled sneer (it was the only facial expression I’ve ever seen Hasselhoff display, going all the way back to Knight Rider). In a tone of broken nobility, aching with regret, he said “Just make her happy.” Then he sloped off with his son to the beach, the custody issue unceremoniously forgotten.

So OK, as chivalric romances go, it wasn’t Chretien de Troyes or Malory. But here’s a hero that saves lives rather than kills people, and whose idea of honor is centered on forgiveness and renunciation rather than the degrading or summary execution of any geek who dares to disrespect him. Isn’t that at least a little admirable? In fact, what’s really disheartening about Baywatch is that the heroism is presented as though it were inherently preposterous, and that Hasselhoff acts like a goofy fake, a middle-aged relic gamely pretending to appreciate that crappy music the kids listen to today. Evidently Americans can’t be expected to understand him, so he has to be hidden within a forest of silicone. But if the slackers of the future were to expend some of their advanced analytic subtlety debating in which Baywatch episode Mitch behaved the most nobly–I’d be willing to listen to that argument for quite a while.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.