The premise of @radical film exec and pop culture maven Jack Lechner’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You sounds like a couch potato’s dream. The book chronicles Lechner’s attempt to re-create Charles Sopkin’s classic social experiment, in which he locked himself in his New York apartment for a week with six televisions. Sopkin’s resulting “Seven Glorious Days, Seven Fun-Filled Nights” was a snapshot of the state of popular culture during one week in the late ’60s.
But times have changed since Sopkin’s day and the six-channel universe of 1967 now looks comparatively quaint. In order to capture the eclectic images and mixed messages in today’s multichannel landscape, Lechner had to up the ante considerably: he holed himself away with 12 TVs and tuned in for 15 hours a day for a week.
Didn’t his mom every tell him that TV numbs your brain?
To help him maintain a semblance of sanity, Lechner relies on his wife, Sam, his pet pug, Cosmo, and an assortment of friends who stop by to visit. On one occasion, he turns to a 5-year-old to interpret “Pokemon” and concludes, “As childhood crazes go, this seems benign.”
Lechner attempts to find meaning and continuity in a seemingly random world, where Marsha Brady co-exists with Ricki Lake and the Playboy Channel is just a click away from the Disney Channel. Watching numerous TVs side by side further encourages such absurd juxtapositions.
There’s ample material here to poke fun at, and Lechner riffs on everything from Sam Donaldson’s hair (“If it isn’t a rug, he should change his barber”) to Archie Bunker (“He’s like a composite of a number of powerful men I’ve met in Hollywood”) and the World Wrestling Federation (“They’ve pulled off the astonoshing feat of identifying the lowest common denominator and going even lower.”)
But while Lechner’s book is billed as “part social history, part memoir,” it is, in fact, closer to an annotated TV Guide. And ironically, since TV shows are cancelled quicker than a book can be put to press, many of the programs Lechner discusses are already history (“The Martin Short Show,” “Work With Me,” “It’s Like, You Know,” “Action,” and “The Mike O’Malley Show,” to name just a few), while seminal shows like “Survivor” are not mentioned at all.
Lechner may have succeeded at capturing a moment in TV history, but it’s not a moment worth immortalizing. While Lechner is a perceptive viewer, he too frequently relies on the quick one-liner, eschewing the more profound exegesis of the boob tube’s flickering images.
In fact, the book might have benefited from more of Lechner’s insider insights into the television business. A former TV executive at Channel 4 in England and at HBO, Lechner has also been a successful gameshow contestant (he won $125,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”). Some anecdotes from these experiences might have helped to make the book more relevant.
During one particularly pensive moment, Lechner writes that he’s saddened by the “pervasisive cynicism” he sees in the unfunny comedies, the undramatic dramas, the unenlightening news and the unstimulating talkshows.
“Again and again I got the feeling that people working in TV had accepted inwardly the most scathing criticisms of the medium — and that their work was hasty and uninspired because they felt that was all anybody expected,” he writes.
But coming at the end of a book that lightheartedly mocks pretty much everything on the small screen, Lechner seems like the last person you’d expect to be depressed by cynicism.
The last chapter, in which Lechner tries to digest all he’s taken in, is the most worthwhile, and includes what seems to be his thesis:
“I don’t think TV is the evil monolith its most vociferous critics fear it to be; nor is it the panacea that the visionaries of the Fifties and Sixties hoped for. It’s just a medium.”
Maybe so, but it’s apparently a compelling enough medium to hold Lechner captive for a week.