new_releases Comfort TV

by Diana Stauber

Published in Issue No. 13 ~ June, 1998

Tonight I was counting on comfort TV.

I had lived through another rotten, degrading day at the office and came home to the untrainable dog. With a pot of rice and chili on the stove, I was all set to engage. Warm food, a glass of grocery store wine, and a robe that has no tie at my thickening waist. Flipping channels alone soothes the spirit. It’s control, it’s active, it’s passive, it’s me, me, and mine. I flipped past cooking, past Mike Hammer, past Archie and a Dana Delaney movie. I rejected the news, CNN, and even, the Learning Channel. Sue me, judge me, but don’t call or come over. I flipped without anger, remorse, or supervision. It’s privacy I wanted, authority, personal whim. And where I ended was a puzzle, an anagram, even now. A mid season episode of that almost forgotten Lost In Space. Contrary to every other person I know, this was a show I wanted to like, but couldn’t. This was a show I wanted to follow, but avoided.

It was futuristic – advanced, for its time.

It was the kicker, the mother Zen, the first trek.

I was a kid when it aired. But even then, I examined the cast and set. There was a dreary feeling about it, something hanging over my head, looming. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Theirs was a family of good looks and brains. The father (Mr. Robinson) and eldest son had unmistakable rugged good looks with take charge attitudes. They showed little fear, only serious (albeit a little hostile) outlooks on their fate. But the mother was all wrong. June Lockhart was smug, too damn smart and unwaveringly unwilling to show any emotion. She had a steeliness to her. In film language there is a specific term which escapes me now. Cardboard. An archetype. And the daughter. A paper thin, not flushed out character…the beautiful young budding woman, half child, half bombshell cretin. Here the writers were half-assed, because how many innocent coming of age Nancy Sinatra type girls were there already on TV? And to make matters worse, she was gamma rayed down to a show that couldn’t decide itself – was it scary or humorous? My point, I guess, is did we really need that much sex appeal? Ok, we did. But place Billy Mummy in the picture and I get uncomfortable. Sure he was curious but there was real trouble broiling in that kid. I bet he was a crybaby on the set.

They needed a curve ball, of course, and came up with a fine one in the forming of Dr. Smith. He was a gay doctor wasn’t he? Let’s not mince words. Back then there was all kinds of homophobic problems on TV. Right on cue, he sniveled and complained just enough to throw a wrench into the pudding. Like Gilligan after him, he was a stooge. The boob few dared to side with.

Even still, a few good characters mixed in with a few cardboards, led me to nothing more than a healthy “so what.” I still couldn’t pinpoint the awful feeling of dread the show held for me. The one that kept me wanting to follow their progress but too uncomfortable to tune in. It was a baffling, can’t-put-my-finger-on-it feeling.

It may have been the theme and setting, true enough. Afterall, they were stuck, thousands of miles from home or port of call. Who would the daughter marry, I wondered? Where would the oldest son drive his fast cars? Well, now I was onto something. The sister and the brother were closest in age and too damn lush for their own good. They were stuck, lost, sexually cut-off. We all now could lecture on incest and inbreeding. But these two didn’t even seem famially tied. Would they have sex or eventually kill one another over a moon rock collection? It was all too unanswerable. But even this wasn’t really it. It wasn’t the total sum.

But now is was thirty years later and I was sitting here safe, on my own couch. So, I took a much closer look and found Jonathan Harris (the doctor) to be a great guy really. Sensitive eyes (slightly far apart), a fawn-like thin nose, a stereotype who looks svelte and sheik in his pastel two-toned jumpsuit, enhanced by his matching green turtleneck (sensible dressers for Space, even then!). In the episode I was watching he sat on rock. Worrying. He worried very well. Four minutes later Dr. Smith was changed into a human sized celery stalk. The guy made things happen. The clash. The action. The conflict.

But then enter top of stage left. The appearance of the real demon of the show: the metal construct of a robot. Ah, here was a real suspect. Kind, wise, protective, he guided “Little Billy” and sided with June. He argued with the doctor but watched his back. I just knew he was too good to be true. Even back when I was young and innocent, I tell you I expected the worst. This was no simple computer on wheels. No logical Spock. This was a space age trash barrel with fangs. I felt the overhang of menace. A microchip ready to turn on the human race (or what was left of it). I watched, waiting for the metallic shoe to drop, a burn-out, a short circuit involving metal pinchers, a no-blooded espionage agent, the double-o tin foiled blowout. This guy acted good. But we all know about those kind of feel-good robots.

We know about Alien revolts, mother cocoons waiting to hatch inside unsuspecting chests of those we’re rooting for, those that lead us, those that love us.

It’s the betrayal of all that emotional investment I was fearing. Rooting for the home team who might at any moment join up with the evil part of life. Trusting your hero, giving it your all and just when you were settled in into the cave you were awakened to the void, the foreign place … lost in time and lost in space.

You look to comfort TV when you want to run from your problems, run from your fears, from work, job interviews balancing current positions against great (sic) opportunities. But Lost In Space at 37 isn’t much easier to take than at 7. I was right to be uncomfortable. We turn to comfort TV for coddling, peace…a few laughs, the end to a perfect untrustworthy El Nino winter’s day.

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Diana is a June 1997 graduate of Bennington's MFA Program and has been published in The Nocturnal Lyric and Whiskey Island. She is the Global Network Manager of International Management Group and lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.