Why Stephen King NEEDS television
I wasn't always like this.
For years, I could take TV or leave it...and mostly I left it. What I did with my free time was read books, go to movies, play my guitar, or sometimes don't be shocked I even talked to people. This talking-to-people thing was an arcane social ritual I learned as a child and perfected in college, where it was known as ''rapping.'' (I know, I'm old, don't rub it in.) Then, about three years ago, something happened. For a while I thought it was only that TV got better and that was part of it but I've come to realize there was another factor at work. You see, it was about three years ago that I took this gig at the back of the book.
In retrospect, it's so obvious: EW has turned me into a TV slut. Oh, it could be worse; I could be an out-and-out plasma prostitute, putting in 25 or even 30 hours a week, mainlining Law & Order (both regular and the high-test Law & Order: SVU), jamming on TiVo for those tasty CSI replays, and checking the newspaper listings for the Regis and Kelly guest lists; it could be lots worse, but for a guy who once thought The Sopranos was about opera (I swear this is true), it's pretty bad.
At least I've never gotten hooked on the so-called ''reality shows.'' I do make-believe for a living, and I know it when I see it. Extreme Makeover? The Apprentice? Survivor? Mother, please. These shows, which specialize in blurring the line between fact and fiction, are entertainment only a James Frey junkie could love. As for American Idol ...two points, okay? One: Stevie Wonder Night ain't what I call music. Two: Simon Cowell, whose picture ought to be in the dictionary next to passive-aggressive, more properly belongs on the next Fox installment of When Animals Attack.
Hey, it's your remote control and what you do with it is your business, but I'd rather take my unreality straight. This year I've found more to take than ever. Here are my basic addictions, along with the various (and fiendish) ways in which I'm being enabled:
THE SHIELD What started as little more than a Training Day rip-off has become a riveting exploration of one man's efforts to redeem his honor and atone for his sins. What makes the current season so hypnotic is Forest Whitaker's Emmy-class performance as Lieut. Jon Kavanaugh smiling, humble, bumbling, and deadly. If he offers you the gum...don't take it. (I get The Shield via TiVo.)
VERONICA MARS Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. On what other TV show could you possibly hear a fresh-faced girl detective cry, ''Hi, everybody! Say repressed homosexuality !'' (I've sampled episodes but will wait for the season 2 DVD; the major story line is too good not to be experienced in sequence.)
LOST It's simply the best thing on network TV, okay? Mysterious story, beautiful location, attractive cast. The only trouble lately has been the puzzling paucity of new episodes. What's in danger of getting lost is any sense of forward motion. (I get it on network TV, week by week.)
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Not quite as good as Lost, but far better than Star Trek, in any of its incarnations sorry, Trekkies, but you know I speak the truth. This is a beautifully written show, driven by character rather than effects...but the effects are damn good. And there's not a better acting troupe at work on television. (I get it via computer download, probably from the Cylon Empire.)
THE SOPRANOS Okay, so these Jersey hoods have worn the teensiest bit thin, but there are still surprises up David Chase's sleeve; Tony taking a bullet from a gun wielded by his addled old uncle was only the first. And James Gandolfini is a wonder. He may never be a movie leading man, but he does more than play Tony Soprano; he inhabits the part in a way that has turned the character into an American touchstone. (I get mine on HBO HD, week by week.)
24 As ridiculous as 24 has become Sentox nerve gas, indeed I would walk over my grandmother rather than miss an episode; I'm that invested. One can argue that none of the characters bear much resemblance to actual people, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to scream at Martha Logan (Jean Smart) to slap that pantywaist, waffling presidential husband of hers until he straightens up and grows a couple of man-accessories. It doesn't stop me from wanting to tell CTU Security to get Kim Bauer out of there; don't you fools realize that someone dies every time she shows up?
Nor did 24 's patent unreality stop me from being furious at the producers when helpful, inoffensive Edgar Stiles got caught on the wrong side of the containment shields after the nerve-gas attack on CTU and dropped dead, foaming at the mouth. Howard Gordon, Joel Surnow, and the rest of the 24 brain trust might as well have murdered my childhood teddy bear.
Of course that's the power of TV: Let these characters into your life by way of repeated viewings and they become real. I'm a sad case in point; once a respected novelist (by my children, at least, and once in a while by my wife as well), now a common TV slut. And yet I have to leave you with one final thought. If you remember nothing else, remember this:
It never should have been Edgar.
It should have been Kim.