It's fun to talk about now nutty the Glenn Beck show is.
It's less funny - indeed, it's almost painful - to watch it.
If you're home at 5 - a time slot, one might recall, where Fox parked nearly as nutty John Gibson - you can try watching Beck; honestly, I get through about 7 minutes, tops before I just have to stop. People complain about Rush Limbaugh being toxic... but listening to Limbaugh's show is annoying mainly for the long and trying commercial breaks. Limbaugh himself? Disagreeable... but not nuts.
Beck's been bouncing around cable and radio for years, taken semi-seriously, largely dismissed as frings, but that changed when Fox made the decision to put him into the evening lead in slot (in a world where we accept that Neil Cavuto's lamer effort at 4 is ostensibly meant to be a Wall Street, business style wrap up of financial news). Since his arrival live at 5, Beck's sucked the oxygen out of taking much of cable news - and certainly most of Fox now - as a serious, respectable medium.
And to think, all he needed to do it was to make the fantasy of Network into reality.
If I had a list of the greatest films of all time - and really, I don't, which is slightly sad in a film critic - surely in my top ten would be Network, which has impressed since I first saw it, and amazes me ever since. A seventies-era parable of the decline of television news into what we now call "infotainment", Network was initially hailed as a savage send-up of TV's worst instincts, won critical raves, and was the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep Actor, Actress, and Screenplay at the Oscars (in 1977 - Silence of the Lambs did it since).
That was before we realized that Network was actually predictive.
You can watch Network now - and if you haven't, just go out and rent it, or Netflix it, or whatever you do - and really it will seem remarkably fresh and vibrant. In part, it benefits enormously from the verite writing of Paddy Chayefsky, a TV veteran who knew the ins and outs of network people, and how their corporate instincts were death to creativity... and seriousness. It also benefits from a string of amazing performances, particularly Faye Dunaway, in her best role, as the nervous, uptight head of programming, Diana Christensen, who lives, breathes, eats and sleeps Nielsen ratings. It's a terribly mannered, artificial role... and Dunaway's just the mannered, artificial actress to pull it off.
The main story concerns the nervous breakdown of Howard Beale, main news anchor for UBS, who, upon learning of his firing, launches a drunken rant at the end of his farewell broadcast. The next night, asked to apologize, he does an even more elaborate rant, urging people to rush to their windows and yell "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."
And they do.
Diana, the head of programming, notices the social impact, and rebuilds the newscast around Howard's rants, and more entertainment content; my favorite addition is the astrologer "Sybil the Soothsayer" who we never get to see actually deliver her sement. But I feel like I'd love it. in all, Network, rather presciently predicts the rise of news as entertainment, the use of reality TV programming as a cheap way to produce TV and get popular attention and outrage, and decries the dumbing down of our culture even as the dumbing down wins.
Anyway, my point is... Glenn Beck is largely recycling Howard Beale.
It's not a deep point... but then the subtle point, and humor, of Network is that while people seem to think they crave "depth", what entertains us is actually immensely shallow. Our culture runs from depth, runs from the serious, and leaps right into the arms of simplistic, easy to embrace melodrama. Look, they're screaming at the Town Hall meetings. Oh my God, Obama wants to speak to schoolchildren and indoctrinate them. Get a load of that girl who got kidnapped 18 years ago and now has two kids by her kidnapper. I hope she can have a normal life.
I'm mad as hell... and I'm not going to take it anymore.
In the end... well, I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen Network; let's just say, you won't have Howard Beale to kick around anymore by the end of it.
What Network can't tell us, really, is what to do about a real life Howard Beale; I suspect, for all his notoriety, that Beck is a short lived phenomenon, because the high volume, high pitched raving he's performing quickly wears out its welcome. He's the logical end, in many ways, of the unhelpful, conspiracy minded, angry and cunical dead end of the far right. With little to offer but recycled resentments, age old name calling (his current bent is "proving" that Obama is a communist and a secret oligarh, I mean, oligarch), Beck makes even your garden variety conspiracy theorists look bland and boring. If you can't make it all the way to crazy town... why bother starting the journey?
Even for the cynical, right wing hype machinists of Fox, Beck has got to seem like too much. If cooler, and calmer, heads can't eventually get his program to settle down, I'd bet the occasional notoriety of his more outre escapades will not cover the general sense that he's too out there to be useful (which, ultimately, is how Gibson imploded as well). If nothing else, Shepherd Smith - who seems to want to do some sort of serious, conservative thinking person's news - is going to have a harder and harder time making excuses for what precedes him (though he has the buffer of Bret Baier's lame replacement act on Brit Hume's old "Special Report"... ewhich, for five nights every week, seems awfully unable to define "Special"). Or maybe Bill O'Reilly will exert some will over Beck eclipsing him with some of his nuttiness.
The altenative of course is too depressing to contemplate... really, the truth could be that Beck is winning. And we're just slaves to the glowing box. That's what Network really tells us, after all.