ally, mal, uncle andy, and the pernicious glass teat

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

I GAVE UP TELEVISION when the powers-that-be un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously can­celed my fave shows. This was 1969 and I still lived at home with Mom and Dad and two sib­lings and they watched tele­vi­sion, but I did not. I had my records, sci­ence fic­tion pa­per­backs, my comic books, and my drawing. But I did live in sit­u­a­tions where the house­hold had a per­ni­cious glass teat.

During col­lege, I lived with my Gramma and she loved her af­ter­noon soap op­eras. I oc­ca­sion­ally found my­self sit­ting on the couch with her and get­ting sucked into the er­satz worlds of one Peyton-Place-like mi­lieu after an­other. I would often have to tear my­self away and sprint back up­stairs to my room to study!

In 1975, I lived in Con­necticut with a couple and their daughter. For them, TV was a must! A few other such sit­u­a­tions oc­curred since then, but es­sen­tially I have not ac­tively watched tele­vi­sion in my own home since leaving home in 1970.

For the twenty years that Berni and I have lived to­gether, our tele­vi­sion set has not been hooked up to re­ceive anything—not even set to re­ceive free TV!


Pernicious: photo of Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds in Firefly.

Nathan Fil­lion as Mal­colm “Mal” Reynolds in Firefly.

Six feet under with Ally and Mal

I never gave up on movies, and so home movie sys­tems have been a staple in my apart­ments since the ear­liest VHS player. Berni and I watch a lot of movies, most of which we pull from the li­brary, a few of which we buy used. A few years ago, I asked my brother Charles about a movie playing in the the­aters and he re­sponded, “We stopped going to the movies since they all end up being made for 16-year-old boys. To see shows with adult themes with good scripts and good acting, we watch the se­ries that are on HBO and Net­flix and others like that.”

So it was that we were turned on to the many fine shows that have been brought to the small home screen in the past two decades. Berni had brought her col­lec­tion of home-taped episodes of Northern Ex­po­sure, which I en­joyed im­mensely! We then started in on these:

•  Friends (which could have run for ten more seasons)
•  Lost (which got lost after a few great seasons)
•  Six Feet Under
•  Life On Mars (and we are among the few who prefer the US ver­sion to the original)
•  Ally McBeal (after which I will never look at wad­dles the same)

As we only watch such se­ries on DVD, we tend to watch older ti­tles that have run their course. With the newer se­ries to which we are ad­dicted (The Big Bang Theory tops that list), we wait until each new season is com­pleted airing and then re­leased on disc. We then binge-watch our way through an en­tire season in a week or two!

I could make a lengthy list of shows we have en­joyed, but two stand out for me: Firefly, which we saw after stum­bling over the movie Serenity. Berni de­vel­oped a crush on Nathan Fil­lion as Mal­colm “Mal” Reynold, one of the few ac­tors ever to have caused that in her!

The other is Dead­wood, which should have made Ian Mc­Shane a superstar.


Pernicious: photo of Mary Louise-Parker as Nancy Botwin in Weeds.

Mary Louise-Parker as Nancy Botwin in Weeds.

Weeds and Uncle Andy

The se­ries that we just fin­ished watching was Weeds, an in­tel­li­gent show with a lik­able cast that saw the flow­ering of Mary Louise-Parker into a won­derful leading lady—and one of the most at­trac­tive women on tele­vi­sion and in films.

To­wards the end of the se­ries, when the arc of the orig­inal show was long since lost, Uncle Andy (Justin Kirk), dis­cov­ered that as he ap­proached middle age he longed to be a parent. In one episode, he im­pul­sively mar­ries a 22-year old col­lege student.

When he goes back to the apart­ment she shares with three other stu­dents, the al­ways an­i­mated Andy wants to cel­e­brate and go out with his bride and her friends. After telling them what a good time they could have, they all look at him with ex­pres­sion­less faces, pull out their cell­phones, and begin tex­ting away, each wrapped up in his or her solipsism.

Funny but har­rowing and all too fa­miliar to anyone who pays at­ten­tion to any­thing when they are outing and abouting: young people—especially teenagers, es­pe­cially girls—seem lost in the elec­tronic ozone o their smart­phones and iPods even while in the com­pany of others (you know, so­cial oc­ca­sions that call for ac­tual socializing).


Pernicious: photo of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood.

Ian Mc­Shane as Al “Swinjin” Swearengen in Deadwood.

No weeds but lots of smartphones

That bit about Uncle Andy was a lead-in to Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times (Sep­tember 4, 2013). Ti­tled “Wrapped in our dig­ital co­coons,” he writes about how easy it is to travel through life in a thor­oughly cus­tomized, elec­tronic cocoon:

“I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thor­oughly cus­tomized cocoon.

I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, ‘the cloud,’ and all of that. I’m talking about our un­prece­dented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tai­lored re­ality of our own creation.

This cod­dling in­volves more than ear­phones, touch­pads, palm-sized screens and gi­ga­bytes of memory. It’s a func­tion of how so many of us use this tech­nology and how we let it use us. We tune out by tucking our­selves into vir­tual en­claves in which our in­grained tastes are mir­rored and our es­tab­lished opin­ions re­flected back at us.

In theory, the In­ternet should ex­pand our hori­zons, speeding us to aes­thetic and in­tel­lec­tual ter­ri­to­ries we haven’t charted be­fore. Often it does.

But at our in­sti­ga­tion and with our as­sent, it also herds us into tribes of common thought and shared tem­pera­ment, am­pli­fying the time­less human tro­pism to­ward cliques. Cy­ber­space, like sub­urbia, has gated communities.”


Pernicious: cover of the first edition of The Glass Teat (Ace, 1970).

Pernicious: cover of the second edition of The Glass Teat (Pyramid, 1975).

Pernicious: cover of the first edition of The Other Glass Teat (Pyramid, 1975).

The first image is the first edi­tion of The Glass Teat from Ace in 1970. This is fol­lowed by the second edi­tion of The Glass Teat and the first edi­tion of The Other Glass Teat. They were part of a se­ries of El­lison books reis­sued with sim­ilar cover de­signs by Pyramid Books in 1975.

The pernicious glass teat

The term “glass teat” that I used in the title of this piece comes from Harlan El­lison’s weekly column of tele­vi­sion ‘re­views’ for the Los An­geles Free Press. These ran from 1968 into 1970 and were among the first columns to both take tele­vi­sion as a medium se­ri­ously and warn viewers about the per­ni­cious ef­fects of watching too much TV—or sucking on the glass teat.

These were col­lected into a pair of some­what leg­endary books, The Glass Teat: Es­says of Opinion on Tele­vi­sion (1970) and The Other Glass Teat: Fur­ther Es­says of Opinion on Tele­vi­sion (1975).

They have been reis­sued as The Glass Teat & The Other Glass Teat Om­nibus and are avail­able through the pub­lisher, Charnel House.


So, what were my two fave shows that were can­celed in 1969? The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Star Trek.

Of course . . .


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