The Magazine

Cut to Commercial

David Skinner, some kind of TV addict.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By DAVID SKINNER
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GORE (not Al, the bloody stuff) is all the rage on television these days, especially in crime shows and medical dramas. After watching a camera shot dwell fondly on a diseased or mutilated body, the viewer gets to tag along into the operating room or, if he's really lucky, the medical examiner's office for a full open-chest autopsy.

This gave me an idea for an invention. I call it the Gruesome Grissom Angioplasticam. Named after the main character on CSI, the highly successful forensic drama most responsible for making gore fashionable, the GGA camera will take television viewers inside the 6-millimeter-diameter, plaque-ridden arteries of stroke victims. It's for a new drama about one of the great serial killers of all time: heart disease. Okay, it's not a real invention, but the Gruesome Grissom joke works (if I may presume) with just about any body part or medication, yup, from ears to enemas.

My old fave Law and Order never used to reveal the bludgeoned condition of murder victims. Now it routinely provides the viewer a lingering camera shot of the point where the deadly bullet tore skin and shattered cranium before plowing into brain matter and exiting the frontal lobe.

I've begun to feel like Nurse Betty in that unwatchable Neil LaBute movie. After witnessing the particularly gruesome murder of her husband, Betty starts to believe she's a character in her favorite soap opera. In my own trance, I'm still me, but the only television I can enjoy are car commercials that happen to be the picture of wholesomeness.

* Woman takes a new Volkswagen for a test drive. Salesman touts the car's acceleration. On a two-lane highway, they pass a slow brown car, which turns out to belong to a cop, who looks at the passing salesman as if he'd gladly throttle the presumptuous twirp. Cute, efficient, humorous.

* Married man and woman compete maniacally to get out of bed first so as to be the one to take their new car for the day. The husband wins. Next morning the wife does, having tinkered with her husband's alarm clock. Next the wife wakes up believing she's got her husband beat again, only to realize the lump next to her in bed is a dummy--and her husband's long gone with the new car.

Oh man, they don't make TV like that anymore.

Actually, I'm being serious. Commercials are getting better all the time, even as the rest of television gets worse. At least the gore-filled medical and cop shows try to be smart. The same cannot be said of sitcoms.

In a just world, shows like According to Jim and Still Standing would be reduced to begging for an audience in 30-second, sell-or-die segments--and the recent Volkswagen campaign would be treated to an homage marathon in prime time, with elbow-patch commentators smoothing the transitions with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and interviews with the writers and directors.

I really do want to know more about these little gems of the small screen. If only there were a website, something like Ain't It Cool News, devoted to TV ads.

Then maybe I could find out the story behind Suze Orman's becoming a pitchman for G.M. SUVs, even as the financial writer counsels readers in her recent book, The Laws of Money, to think twice before buying new cars and taking on unsupportable debt. Or the story behind the Campbell's Soup campaign starring Gordon Elliott that began in the fall of 2003.

Elliott is a professional foodie with his own cable show. After he did a special on the mushrooms of Champigny, France, I spent a vacation in the Loire Valley and searched for one of the cave restaurants he'd visited, for a taste of the "fouet" sandwiches he'd featured, made with just-baked, clay-oven, pita-like bread and a variety of local mushrooms lightly grilled.

Elliott's great at finding far-flung culinary treats like this. But apparently he's also at home cashing checks, in exchange for telling people to eat the oversalted, gelatinous, canned starch-goop Campbell's continues to call soup.

The truth is, whether or not a commercial is particularly polished--and whether or not it involves any especially crass hypocrisy--I'm likely to watch it with a level of concentration that is simply weird.

"Passive" doesn't come close to the state of slack-jawed wonder I enter when almost any commercial comes on the idiot box. I am completely unable to do anything else at the same time. Most TV viewers prefer to chat during commercials and remain silent otherwise. I am just the opposite.

There must be something wrong with me. Maybe on a future episode of CSI I'll get to see which section of the brain's gray matter regulates the attention span. Only it will have been blown to smithereens.

--David Skinner