Nostalgia TV and TV Criticism

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Marya Mannes and David Susskind
Title: “Nostalgia TV and TV Criticism”
VTR: 3/17/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I started this series nearly a quarter of a century ago, when the world was young. And in recent years I’ve often thought about going back in time to reprise some of our older discussion, perhaps even fro the 1950s. Well, it was in October 1957 when Variety printed a review that read, in part, “The art, or lack of it, of television criticism came in for a thorough and sometimes surprisingly frank going over on Richard Heffner’s THE OPEN MIND last Sunday. A panel comprising Talent Associates partner David Susskind, scripter Rod Serling, and critic Marya Mannes from The Reporter dug incisively into the good and bad of the medium’s working critics. Though not always unanimous in their viewpoints, the trio found some areas of agreement, principally that there are few critics suited with the background and talent for their work, that television criticism, despite the medium’s one-shot nature, should attempt to be analytic and therefore helpful to the producer for future productions, that too many critics tend simply to brush off a production with a phrase or a catch word instead of attempting to give the shy of the faults”.

Well, Rod Serling is gone, sorely missed by all of us who admired not just his enormous talent and creative ingenuity, but also his great good humor and plain personal decency.

Marya Mannes is here today, however, still with a forceful pen. And so is David Susskind, as prolific as ever, filmmaker now as well as television producer and executive. And the issue that we’ll all discuss today remains: The nature, the function, the value of television criticism.

Marya, thanks for joining me today, and David, too. And I wonder whether after all these years since 1957 you’ve changed your mind about some of the things, nasty and supportive, that you said about television critics and criticism. You both had the chance to look back at that old transcript, and I wonder what your comments are.

SUSSKIND: Yes, but I didn’t do my homework, I must confess. I did not read the transcript, and I don’t recall what I said 20-odd years ago.

HEFFNER: What do you think you would have said 20 years ago that was different from today David?

SUSSKIND: What would I have said 20 years ago? I haven’t any idea. I probably said that there aren’t many good critics; most of them are rather slip-shod reviewers of…Jackie Gleason said that a critic was a person who reported an accident that had taken place somewhat earlier. Most of them are that, having switched over from shipboard reporting. There are a few good critics in America that should be taken seriously and studied. Certainly John O’Connor of The New York Times, certainly Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times, maybe Tom Shales of The Washington Post, a couple of the men who review for Television Guide, TV Guide. But most of them are treacle. I think Kay Gardella is a good critic on The Daily News. Most of them should be dismissed out of hand. They don’t know what they’re doing. They can’t write. They certainly have no analytical insight. They’re a waste of reading time and thinking time.

HEFFNER: Well, I’ve done my homework, and I think that you’re not terribly far different in what you say today and what you said in 1957.

SUSSKIND: Good.

HEFFNER: So there’s a consistency, David. Marya, what’s your feeling? How have you changed your mind, if at all?

MANNES: Well, I think I’m more tolerant of TV than I was in the days I was looking at it for The Reporter magazine. By “tolerant”, I think it means that there’s a wide diversity of tastes in this country and that one shouldn’t criticize it on the basis of not being intellectual enough or elevated enough or real art as against fake art. I really frankly now use it more to relax than to think. Now if that’s a kind of automatic criticism of it, you can take it.

HEFFNER: Well, what about your criticism of the criticism of this medium?

MANNES: Well, I think that on the whole it has improved. There are many more critics who ask intelligent questions and saying, “Oh, this was good, but that really was not up to the writer or the actor or the producer”. I think it’s taken a lot more seriously now than it was then, because then the thing…Well, entertainment, or innertainment, as it’s called, was the budding…were you amused by it, were you entertained and so forth, not does it make you think or has that person or guy got a good mind.

HEFFNER: Well, David was rather incensed – that might be a poor word – or very excited about the thought that Marya and Rod Serling set forth that television, we should demand more of the medium. And I remember you felt somewhat as Marya is saying now, don’t put down this medium, the commercial aspect of it; many, many good things happen. And those things perhaps that don’t happen, perhaps they’re not supposed to happen on a mass medium. Do you feel that way now?

SUSSKIND: No, I’m as demanding of television of its best potential as I was 20 years ago. I’m much more tolerant of the fact that given the gigantic maw that television has, this voracious monster that consumes materials human and the literary 24 hours a day in cities like New York and Los Angeles, the set is never off, the station is never dark. What proportion of that can be outstanding and memorable? A very tiny proportion. Even so, we have a better batting average of quality and achievement than of books, than motion pictures certainly, than the theater most certainly. The percentage of the worthwhile to the trivial and dismissible is quite extraordinary in television, given its 24-hour-a-day demand. Most newspapers aren’t worth the reading. Most magazines are a waste of your time. Most movies are beneath contempt. A lot of television is good and thoughtful and trying awfully hard to educate your mind or your emotions. I think we do a pretty good job. I wish it was better.

HEFFNER: You know, before you came into the studio when Erhard was here and we did another OPEN MIND show, and before we went on the air, he had said someday he was going to ask questions of hosts who interrupt – interrupt – who interview him on the air. And maybe that’s the point, who interrupted. And ask when you’re interrupting me or interviewing me what is your own thinking? What is it you want from me? How do you see your own relationship to me as a guest? Again going back to the question of criticism, Marya, you’re one of the most distinguished critics of television, most capable writer about television that I know. What is the function of the critic? IN ’57 you and Rod Serling somewhat disagreed with David about that function. You wanted a little more from the critic than I think that, than I think that David did. You wanted to go a little bit more behind the returns.

MANNES: I wanted perception on the part of the critic and also translation in terms of, from the specific to the mass, of what this would mean to people or how they would come out after looking at it. Of course, I regret to say that I myself turn to television now more for relaxation than for stimulation, except in the area of news, and…

SUSSKIND: But…

MANNES: …extraordinarily bright individuals. Then I eat it up.

SUSSKIND: Are you watching soap operas Marya?

MANNES: Yeah.

SUSSKIND: No.

MANNES: Not regularly, no, no, not regularly, but occasionally I turn on…

SUSSKIND: Twice a week?

MANNES: …maybe once a week.

HEFFNER: And you, David?

SUSSKIND: Never!

HEFFNER: What do you watch?

SUSSKIND: Never. Good God, Marya Mannes, you’re not watching a soap opera! The world hasn’t come to that pass.

MANNES: Not regularly, no. But it does…There are times when, since I do think a lot during the day and work quite hard, I don’t want to think in the evening. So how to stop thinking is to look at a soap opera.

SUSSKIND: Soap opera is afternoon. Are you looking for erotic stimulation? I mean, what are you doing it for?

MANNES: No, I’m not that sunk.

SUSSKIND: No.

MANNES: Certainly television doesn’t…I don[t feel like being a critic as much as I did before, simply because no matter what I said or thought or no matter what any critic thinks or writes, this medium is self-propelling now. It’s so powerful and so big that I don’t think I have to worry whether a certain bigdome or gray-haired whatnot thinks this is lousy or not.

HEFFNER: All right, that’s really a question we ought to get into. You’ve given up in a sense, say it doesn’t work critically.

SUSSKIND: No, critics do matter. Good critics, thoughtful critics, critics associated with meaningful publications. The Reporter would qualify. So would the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Louisville Courier Journal, Boston Globe.

HEFFNER: How do they matter?

SUSSKIND: They prick at the conscience of television. They make the networks tremble with self-consciousness, with the occasional sense of dereliction of duty. They remind the networks that there is something beyond increased earnings for stockholders, a higher price for the stock this year than last year. They are the ones who initiate the self-consciousness about too much violence, about too much inanity, about an overbalance of westerns and detectives and hospital shows. They have had a meaningful impact, those responsible critics, those good critics, on television through the years. I’ve been a beneficiary of that criticism. I’ve had heads of networks call me and say, “We’ve got to do something good now”. I mean, the parent-teacher associations, the United Church of Christ, The New York Times, they’re all driving us crazy. Now, what could we do?” And it was to that question I said, “Why don’t we do ‘Death of a Salesman’?” Everybody would have to admire “Death of a Salesman”. Why? Well, it was a Pulitzer Prize play. It’s the most memorable play of the twentieth century by an American author. It deals with the American ethos, and if I could get Lee Cobb and the cast that played it on Broadway I think we’d have an unforgettable occasion and maybe you’d get a compliment for a change.

HEFFNER: David…

SUSSKIND: That’s how “Death of a Salesman” happened.

HEFFNER: But you’re putting them all together. You lumped together the ACTs…

SUSSKIND: No, just the good ones.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I mean you lump together the ACTs, the Action for Children’s Television, the PTA groups, the Churches of Christ…

SUSSKIND: Critics.

HEFFNER: …and the critics.

SUSSKIND: The good critics.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s not more than the literal pressure from those groups rather than the good thoughts of the critics?

SUSSKIND: No. It’s more the impact of the important critics, the distinguished critics from the distinguished publications more than any other single force. So that they have a very special and unique responsibility to be aware, to be articulate, to be insightful, analytical, constructive, not to bring all their hang-ups and prejudices to their critiques. You know, I mean, some of the critics, John O’Connor, whom I admire greatly, he doesn’t like a thing called docudrama. Docudrama is dealing with some figure in history or some event. It could be the sinking of the Lucitania. It could be Adolph Hitler. It could be an upcoming case, the life and times of Robert Kennedy, or recently in my past, “Blind Ambition”, the story of John Dean and the Watergate conspiracy. He doesn’t feel that that form does justice to the historical figure or to the event. He’s damned wrong, you know. And he should come to “Blind Ambition” on its own terms. Have we told the story of Watergate faithfully? Is it accurate? Was it well dramatized? Was the acting good? Was the direction good? Instead he says, “I am disturbed that we are treating such momentous matters as Watergate in the dramatized form”. If we did it in a documentary form nobody would watch it.

MANNES: Nobody would watch it. Exactly.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you say that, because back some years ago in ’57 you said, “Forget about this idea of intention. Forget about what our intentions was and what we were about to do”.

SUSSKIND: Same feeling today. The hell with my intention. Talk about the show. Talk about Eleanor and Franklin. Were we faithful to the history of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, to the times, to the events? How good was the drama? Don’t give me any marks for intention. My intention was always consummate. I want perfection. I want an A+. I once got an A+ at college. I thought, “My God, that’s what I want every day, and A+”.

HEFFNER: What’d you get it in, David?

SUSSKIND: I got it in common law and equity from Roscoe Pound, Dean Roscoe Pound. Why do you ask me that question?

HEFFNER: Because I want to figure it out, what the A+ would be for.

SUSSKIND: Aw, hell. It was a mistake. He just meant to make a D+ and he made it A+.

HEFFNER: Okay. Concession. Now, why shouldn’t he bring to his criticism – not Dean Pound, but John O’Connor – why shouldn’t he bring to his criticism what you call his hangup, what he might call a point of view, his orientation, his sense of what television should be?

SUSSKIND: Well, because it colors the accuracy and the purity of his judgment, which is already flawed because he’s human. He’ll bring X amount of prejudice anyhow. But if he says, “This genre makes my flesh crawl”, that’s wrong, you know. And there are many critics who aren’t as forthright as John O’Connor. I mean, there are people around the country who don’t like docudrama because they wish they had done it. There’s a guy in Chicago that should be, whatever they did to Solzhenitsyn in Russia, they should send this guy there. Gary Deeb. Have you heard of him?

MANNES: I’ve never heard of him.

SUSSKIND: Well, he doesn’t want you to deal with Eleanor and Franklin, and he doesn’t want you to deal with John Dean, and he doesn’t want you to deal with the Cuban missile showdown or with the Pueblo. I mean, he is a prehistoric ape. But he’s still writing, and somebody’s publishing him every day. And worst of all, somebody is taking him seriously somewhere, probably his mother.

HEFFNER: Marya?

MANNES: Well, I think there are two major reasons why people look at television. Certainly it’s true of me. One is not to think, and the other is to think. And I find it’s almost equal with me. there are times when I just want to be amused, entertained, taken out of my own absorptions, especially if I’m alone.

SUSSKIND: Well, you should watch “Charlie’s Angels”. You will never have to think again.

MANNES: No, I never…Well, I looked, and I never did think again. (Laughter)

SUSSKIND: All right.

MANNES: That was it. I never looked again either.

HEFFNER: Marya, why did you come to the conclusion that it didn’t make that much difference what you wrote nor what the critics said? David doesn’t agree with that, but I respect your judgment here.

MANNES: Well, I think at that time the sort of change of attitude, that I do think they do care now. I think there’s definite change about public reaction and individual reaction to television. More and more people choose what they want to see instead of just turning on the button and lying in front of it. I think that is true; I may not be right.

SUSSKIND: There’s a good deal of dial-switching, yes, that’s true.

HEFFNER: Also in those days that wasn’t true?

MANNES: Not anywhere as true as now. I think that this was a marvelous instrument, partly to learn news. I mean news qua news, you know, what happened yesterday, who was shot, who was president and whatnot.

SUSSKIND: Who’s still president…

MANNES: Yes, but I think that…Also entertainment, not to think, to be carried away on some romantic story or to be given an easy lesson in politics or ethics without straining your mind. I think people are much more serious about television than they were 20 years ago.

HEFFNER: Do you feel – just going back to this review in Variety – it said, “Serling and Miss Mannes argued that the critic should take into consideration the intention and measure how far short of the intent the actual production felt [sic]”. You think that…

MANNES: Yes, I think that’s fair. I think that’s in any art. Now, of course, I don’t know who does or who wants to call television an art. It is certainly a craft, and it’s certainly not only a message but it’s a sales act.

SUSSKIND: Merchandise.

MANNES: Merchandise, yes. And I don’t know, what was the specific question? What were the…

HEFFNER: The question had to do with whether intent should be considered here, whether, as you felt in ’57, as Serling felt, yes, the critic ought to examine what the…

MANNES: Yes.

HEFFNER: …producer’s intent was and move from there. David says no.

MANNES: Well, I, no, I think as for the intent, because obviously a piece of amusement, an entertainment program is just that, and there’s no need to criticize it because it isn’t a deep think exercise. As long as it’s well acted, well cast, and amusingly played, let it go. I mean, don’t bomb it because it doesn’t teach you a big lesson. On the other hand, the serious people who try to ell you something, whether it’s from news or through lecture setting, have a real important job on their hands and should be judged as to their luck, their success in putting across an important message.

HEFFNER: Did you subscribe to this notion that docudramas were acceptable, or do you fall on the side of those who say there is something inherently wrong with fictionalizing the past?

MANNES: I don’t think it’s inherently wrong in a detail way. I think it’s wrong in attributing wrong motives to certain people at certain times in our history without background proof. I don‘t know. There’s so many different angles of responsibility on television. If you just want to entertain – and that of course is the great hope of most because it’s the most remunerative – then I think there should be a different frame of criticism. Is this funny? Is this well acted? Does it put across its message in an amusing way? I think that’s all right. But for serious stuff, I think a measure, a large measure of truth and fact should be considered. And the public, the direction of the public mind and thought.

SUSSKIND: Well, you see, I think that in recent – I can only refer to blistering experiences of recent date – most critics in the Untied States reviewed their anger at John Dean, the fact that he, in their view, got away with it, the fact that he turned state’s evidence, the fact that his sentence was mitigated and cut from three years down to five months, the fact that subsequently he wrote a book and a paperback from which he made a million dollars. This made the average critic angry at John Dean. So most reviewers, because they’re not critics, they’re reviewers, except for those people I mentioned earlier, they were reviewing their anger or contempt and fury at John Dean’s prosperity and the meager punishment he got by their lights. Wrong. I mean, John Dean did turn state’s evidence. There was a time in this country when the entire issue was Richard Nixon versus John Dean, who was telling the truth? And subsequent history has proven that John Dean told the truth, word for word. Did he dot it to save his own skin? Probably. Did he get away with a stiffer sentence? Yes. Did he make a million dollars? Yes. But we told, we didn’t deify him. We told it as it happened. But they reviewed their hostility, you see.

HEFFNER: But that’s why I’m surprised that you still maintain that you don’t want them to look at what your intention was, because you’re saying, “Look at what we intended to do, and by gosh, we did it. Review that”.

SUSSKIND: No, no. No, no. Look at the story of John Dean and just review it. If you’ve read it in The New York Times and those endless pages of transcripts, every word in “Blind Ambition” came from the Senator Irwin Committee hearings, the Judge Sirica courtroom proceedings, or the famous transcripts of Richard Nixon that he kept so faithfully. Every word except relationship with his wife. That came from several hundred hours of interviewing Mr. and Mrs. John Dean. But whenever we had Mitchell on, wherever we had Haldeman or Erlichman or something, those were their own words, taken from their testimony. But they couldn’t comprehend that, those dismal brains. They just couldn’t comprehend it. “Eleanor and Franklin” was reviewed by the distinguished critic – and he is – John O’Connor, and he criticized the opening episode four hours by saying, “It’s much too much from Eleanor Roosevelt’s point of view. We deal too much with their personal life”. Well, the book that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award was called “Eleanor and Franklin”, and it dealt with the relationship from Eleanor’s point of view, which is what we did. And then he said, “Not enough of the great activities of Franklin Roosevelt have been dramatized”. Well, of course not, because we ended the first four hours with his taking the oath of office, “I do solemnly swear to protect the Constitution of the United States…” He was becoming president of the Untied States when we ended the first four hours. How, therefore, could we deal with the NRA and the AAA and everything else, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation? We did that in the next three hours. Well, I found that criticism, that particular criticism, sill, purile, paying no attention to the source material of the book.

HEFFNER: If he had been dealing with your intention not to go further than you did in that one particular program, the criticism wouldn’t have been as it was.

SUSSKIND: Not intention; fact. We ended, the last shot of the thing is he takes the oath of office, the first time as president of the United States. And we faded to black. Does he have to review my intention, or does he review that show he just saw? Anyway, I like him, I admire him. He’s a fabulous critic. But is he ever mortal? Yessiree, boy.

HEFFNER: “The most virulent of the critics”, said this review in ’57, “was Susskind, who complained that the logic of making ship news reporters, obituary writers and police reporters into critics escapes him, and that there are few critics who have the talent, good taste, intelligence, and judgment to be good at their profession. He singled out The New York Times’ Jack Gould for criticism, stating he considered Gould ‘A journalist, not a critic’. One possible explanation for the evaluation was Gould’s severe panning of Susskind’s production of “Pinocchio”, which was repeated in his Sunday column the morning of THE OPEN MIND show”. Now, is this a kind of ad hoc reaction to these guys?

SUSSKIND: I would not retract anything. I found Jack Gould’s contribution to television to be important and unforgettable. And one should pay him great respect forever because he was – and I never his criticism – but because he was – and he hates this phrase, incidentally – he was the conscience of the industry, of the broadcasting industry. He was quick to point out its dereliction, quick to point out its opportunities, quick to point out its mistakes and it’s over or lack of balance, overabundance of westerns, overabundance of private eye shows. He’s say, “Balance, diversity, that’s what we need”. Jack was the prodding, pricking conscience of television. And he should be honored forever for that. Not a good critic ever. John Crosby was a wonderful critic. He…

HEFFNER: He liked Pinocchio.

SUSSKIND: I don’t know. Did he? Well, he also had great taste, you see. But John Crosby was an excellent critic. Who else was good in those days? And you were very good indeed.

MANNES: Well, I hope I was.

SUSSKIND: Murray Torre was a good critic. Cecil Smith was still criticizing in those days. He was always good. There are people that have the gift of criticism. That’s an analytical intelligence, a flair for writing. How she feels is one thing; how she expresses it is another. And hopefully you’re looking for a sense of the medium, whether it’s theater or television or motion pictures, you’re looking for historical knowledge of the medium. You’re looking for insight, sensitivity, sensibilities, and you’re looking for an ability to write effectively.

HEFFNER: Marya, you have been a critic in more than television, obviously. In a half a minute that we have left, do you find yourself doing different things as a television critic than you did as a literary critic?

MANNES: Oh, yes. I think I was more human about television criticism than I was about literary.

HEFFNER: Less demanding?

MANNES: A little less demanding, yes. Because I still think that entertainment is a very important part of life, and I think it does things for people if it is intelligently handled with good motivation. But I don’t know, I find book criticism a quite different cup of tea, completely different, and in a way much more arduous. But it’s, you know, I haven’t thought about these things very much. I’ve done them all my life, but at the time I do them I just look at something or read something and say, “Oh God, that’s good”, or “It’s lousy”, or this and that.

HEFFNER: Good basis for criticism. Thank you so much for joining me today Marya Mannes and David Susskind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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