Schlock has escaped from its cage and infected everything. As reflected in President Donald Trump’s impossibly tacky golden-tinted ’80s design sense, America endures the worst sort of throwback. Time only seems to be moving forward as we’re trapped by ideas that repulsed decent people before anyone had modems.
Specifically, we’re stuck on the best worst talk show ever. Present American inmates inhabit a Morton Downey Junior world where the most dated example of confrontational TV ever has gone national. Off-putting fighting wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, but it’s now the baseline for discourse. I miss when trash was honest. Those innocent times make today’s genuine anger even more tiresome.
Today’s tainted political ecosystem is reminiscent of what was broadcast three decades ago by WOR-TV, a delightfully low-rent channel known for chintzy local production values in the nation’s biggest media market. The fascinating view they provided of tawdry New York City was both horrifying and exciting. If you missed it, you can only be assured that the appeal was irresistible even if muggings were the only thriving industry.
A Gotham channel’s provincial take was especially enticing for a suburban brat at the state’s other end. I was quite fond of the evening news, which was an intense version of the formula where metropolitan activity seemed relentlessly exciting in its frightening way. It felt like my local news, only with the dosage upped.
The channel became beloved for its somehow charming series of purportedly valuable films, batty originals, and whatever syndicated programming they could score. Their offerings also included a shocking local radio host named Howard Stern. Who could not watch while flinching?
But the queen fake jewel was Downey’s preposterous outrage hour. His habit of screaming at scum-sucking, pabulum-puking liberals, to use his favorite description of those with whom he disagreed, typified the era’s amusing excesses. Well, we couldn’t own jerks online.
I remember catching Mister Downey Junior’s embodiment of sensationalism for the first time. He was bickering with Klansmen, which made it the perfect initial episode. Did you know he opposed them? It was a time for bold statements. He concluded the feisty hour by righteously kicked them off the set. Of course, I was hooked. Amused by his preposterous forcefulness and contempt for dissent, I had my political model.
Scolding, accosting, and chain-smoking were par for the course. People didn’t tune in for William Buckley-style erudition: we wanted our right-wing ranting literally in the face of the opposition. This was an era when commies were descending into cartoonish failure. They were begging to be publicly humiliated.
The subtle political visionary frequently sparred with people who’ve become nationally notorious. For one, the cheesy ragefest was the level where Gloria Allred belonged. It’s not to accuse her of seeking attention or anything, but she always practiced law in front of television cameras. Now, you can actually find a certain brand of sanctimonious twits who respect her as an attorney. That shouldn’t happen for anyone in that particular inglorious profession, but it’s especially so for her.
And nothing that says more about our society than Al freaking Sharpton being taken seriously. The purported reverend was more tolerable when he was a race-baiting local clown with the girth and pompadour to match. Of course, he still left a trail of corpses which made his shtick less charming. But showing up to argue with Downey was fitting for the guy who inflicted what he did on Crown Heights, Steven Pagones, and Freddie’s Fashion Mart.
It’s no surprise Downey interviewed a president if you’ve made it this far. He notoriously interviewed a local real estate-flipping braggart named Donald Trump because of course he did. It was the perfect pairing of someone repellant spewing hideous takes as he drew attention to himself and Morton Downey.
Downey was a visionary, sadly. He naturally didn’t believe a word he said. The poseur’s not entirely novel strategy involved getting as outrageous as possible for ratings. Sure, relying on shock is unsustainable. But nobody cares about running out of fuel when the afterburner button is fun to press.
There was plenty inspirational about someone known for screaming about a position that’s a caricature of what people actually believe. The blip on the cultural radar during the original Nintendo era featured a guy playing a character who adorably thinks nobody else notices. Gee, can you think of a president who took inspiration from Channel 9’s trashy mascot?
The sideshow was taken nationally long ago. Life feels dull while the rage never stops. For one, the formerly enticing base for depravity has gone corporate. New York is boring as the banks on every corner. Everything that was unique is no longer. Local color was co-opted by attention whores in other markets. It is technically a culture even if it’s not quite refined.
Those who prefer substance to volume miss when Trump was a headache limited to Gotham’s tabloids. We’re inured to the New York Post covering him as national news. The damage radius increased exponentially past the Hudson. I miss when the screaming was contained to a ramshackle TV set in Secaucus. Loudmouths can be heard anywhere.