Norman Lear James Wolcott - Essay

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the first season, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman deteriorated into an off-off-Broadway nightmare—a druggy No Exit, where hell was other suburbanites—but 2-Night's new characters, plus MH regulars who will pop in from time to time, should lift the Fernwood saga out of its surreal doldrums…. Unless my instincts have gone glitchy, Fernwood 2-Night, with its Gong Show gooniness, can't fail to be a hit. Which will fill Norman Lear's bulletin board with happy returns….

I laughed at much of Fernwood 2-Night, but I didn't really like it, and I don't think it should bring silver to Lear's reputation. 2-Night is shrewdly, confidently coarse—was Norman Lear born with one nostril? taste is hardly his talisman—and the coarseness is used for a self-consciously stupid put-on effect. Except for a satirical bit about "deprogramming" a Catholic priest, the jokes here—about iron lungs, senior citizens, Vietnamese refugees—aren't vulgarly liberating but pricky and mean; it's insensitivity masquerading as a parody of "insensitivity."

But what's wrong with 2-Night goes deeper than show-biz bumminess…. Lear's depiction of the working class is shaped by snobbery and ignorance…. Fernwood 2-Night, like Mary Hartman, is a televisionized fantasy of life in the heartland, and the Middle America of Norman Lear is every bit as phony and crass as the haystack-and-moon-shine South of Hee Haw….

If Fernwood 2-Night were merely midsummer madness …, then it could be shrugged off, but like Mary Hartman …, it will probably become ridiculously influential. Norman Lear has, in 2-Night, brought together two fashionable post-McLuhan notions—the world as soap opera, the world as talk-show—and given us a meta-world in which everyone is linked not by blood or class or affection but by a flow of put-on banter…. Norman Lear probably believes he is being entertainingly uplifting, but the Yahoo mockery of Fernwood 2-Night serves only to dislocate people from the real sources of rage, oppression, and attrition. Is Vietnam so faraway in our memories that we can cheerfully make jokes about "gooks"?

James Wolcott, "The Other Side of Fernwood," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), July 11, 1977, p. 71.