Better Than People

The Federal Communications Commission should investigate the possibility that daytime television serials are a hoax, that the same actors and actresses appear on all the serials, and that the same script is used not only for all the serials but also for each installment.

I make this suggestion as one who occasionally wanders in on a daytime serial while waiting for some other program, and the impression of sameness is downright exciting: the whole thing must be a joke. In the first place, in the blur of screen credits for lighting experts, hairdressers, and manicurists no one can read the names of the performers anyhow, so that they could remain anonymous through repeated appearances in the same episode. The performers all look alike, too, a highly forgettable lot of faces, neither handsome nor homely, seemingly without makeup and much in need of some, not old, not young. Finally, they all do the same thing and nothing else — talk. Any scene from a daytime serial is, therefore, a big, nondescript face that talks and talks and talks.

The climate of the daytime serial is one of suspicion and deceit, which of course leads to a ceaseless bickering among the characters. Misunderstandings develop; the talk leads them out of one set of errors into the next. No sooner has the woman’s big face been replaced by the man’s big face than we realize that he has missed the point of her entire harangue and is off on a new note of nonsense of his own.

The considerations that set the serial characters to bickering are sordid, or rather they would be were they not so piffling. To the proposition that every man has his price the daytime serial adds the proviso that the price is probably extremely low. The sums changing hands in the bribe to the crooked judge or the larcenies of the crooked trustee are chicken feed, so that the viewers can identify themselves and their neighbors with the serial characters: they are all badly off financially, mean and suspicious, stupid, and — of course — crooked.

In great contrast to the serial acted by people, I encounter from time to time a syndicated serial called Stingray, performed by marionettes and “starring” a marionette named Troy Tempest. Stingray is designed for children of about age eight. I should judge, and its general effect is much livelier than the laborious misunderstandings of the serial with living performers. Troy Tempest is involved in really big operations — submarine, intercontinental, interplanetary — and when he is not at the controls of Stingray, he is trundling smartly about in a neat little submarine-helicopter.

It was inevitable that any technology capable of hitting the moon with rockets would sooner or later improve the locomotion of the marionette. Time was when he pranced around two or three inches above the ground, or else walked in a semirecumbent position, with his feet tramping along far in front of his body. His motor and speech centers were controlled by a network of threads that ascended to some unseen omnipotent hand in the flies. So that the audience could be sure which marionette was doing the talking, speech was accompanied by a vast opening and closing jaw movement.

Troy Tempest is a much more sophisticated piece of machinery, and none of his threads or controls can be seen. His jaw movement is almost too moderate, yet this is congruent with his appearance and character: steady, courageous, and absolutely unflappable.

“Fire three, five, and seven.”

“Fire three, five, and seven.”

“Condition green.”

“Condition green.” (Cr-r-rash!)

Even in such emergencies as this Troy Tempest’s serenity remains convincing, for whoever designed him knew exactly how a marionette ought to look throughout the assorted fortunes of a serial for eightyear-olds. With too jubilant a face, he would look, as calamity closed in on him, like a chump. If he were too austere, a face of that sort would hardly be suitable for his tender moments with beautiful Marina, the girl marionette of Stingray, or for his triumphs over The Enemy. As a young, manly career officer — he’s a captain in some kind of service or other — Troy Tempest’s countenance is just right, certainly a lot more persuasive than those big faces shouting at each other in the serials with live actors. True, his eye looks at us a bit blankly, but we must remember that his responsibilities of command are heavy, his thought perhaps elsewhere.

The only hint of his hereditary infirmity, common to ail marionettes, including even Marina and the Mad Scientists, is an ever so slight wobbling of the head as it sits on what is presumably his spinal column.