I dreamed I died and went to Cincinnati. Imagine my horror when I awoke and discovered that I was in Cincinnati. Only now it’s moved and lies roughly between the new and improved Times Square, the new and improved 42nd Street, and the new and improved 57th Street. It’s all so bright. And clean.

The only thing is, if we wanted to live in Cincinnati, we could–and it would probably only cost about $300 a month, utilities included. Me? I live in what used to be Manhattan because up until a few years ago, it wasn’t like any other place in the universe.

Now only Queens is like no other place in the universe. Even Brooklyn has become cute. And touristy. Don’t be surprised on your next visit to Borough Park if you see busloads of tourists hanging off double-deckers snapping pictures of Hasidim, having mistaken them for a renegade sect of urban Amish.

Sure, crime is down (except among cops). And the price isn’t too high–after all, who minds a beating now and then in exchange for a little peace and quiet? What’s $27.3 million in settlements last year alone to citizens who’ve been brutalized by the cops in the city? The streets are as safe as, say, Cincinnati. Just stay out of the station houses.

There are other, even more frightening clues to the Cincinnati-zation of New York, too.

Take for example the new white police cars with those friendly “CPR” logos. At first I thought they were EMS cars doing freelance CPR, but no! They’re white cop cars–like suburbia. (No, it doesn’t stand for the “Cincinnati Police Relocation,” but “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.” Saying it must make it so.)

Then there are the new and improved colored newspapers. The Gray Lady has become fuchsia. The gritty Daily News looks like a coloring book. Really, who needs to see Mother Teresa in full color anyway?

Ruth Messinger certainly had a New York edge in black and white that’s missing in color. Take the News’s front page the other day. There was Messinger, all aglow in coral lipstick, blue blazer, and red AIDS awareness ribbon. (Or was that a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon?)

And that brings up another point: the homogenization of our politicians. New York pols are supposed to look weird, crazed, and slightly threatening. I, for one, am horrified to see that Al Sharpton’s had a hairdo makeover (perhaps in an attempt to look nonthreatening) and wound up with Ruth Messinger’s hairstyle. Al! Al! Remember who you are–gritty, urban, outrageous. You do not come from Cincinnati. You are not a Jewish woman.

Even Hooters, the restaurant chain, possibly the single most offensive thing about the suburbs, has come to NYC. Why, dear God, are they doing this to us?

And Disney! Oy, as they say in Cleveland. City officials think the out-of-control mouse population explosion is real? No! It’s only the exponential explosion of Mickey Mouse. Where’s a good exterminator when you need one?

And Disney is just the tip of the ice, er, suburb. Everywhere you look–Nike, Warner Brothers, fake “real NYC diners.” Why not just stay in the burbs and go to a mall?

Then there’s Times Square. Sure it’s great looking. And bright. Did you know that it’s now genetically impossible to get mugged there? Even if you did, it would probably be simulcast on the Sony big screen, sitting atop Times Square like the one in 1984. Even the hookers are fake now. You can see a re-creation of one, though, if you’re interested, in The Life. Like a prostitute zoo, or something. With a little luck, they’ll turn it into a theme restaurant–Hookers.

When the homogenization of Manhattan is completed, I hear they’re going to put a bubble over the whole thing and call it a mall. Or better yet, Cincinnati.



Rakesh Magan’s criminal career was nothing spectacular–in an insurance scam, he set fire to his Salt Lake City grocery store, and then fled the state when police filed arson charges. But his capture earlier this year was altogether original: Magan became the first fugitive nailed by the FBI’s Web site, after a customer in Magan’s newshop in Massachusetts recognized him from the 10 Most Wanted List posted on the FBI’s home page.

Magan’s capture belies what is otherwise the Internet’s well-earned reputation for being an unpoliceable no-man’s-land. After years of publicity about renegade hackers and child-porn rings, the Web has largely been seen, in the words of Bill Gates, as “a lawless environment…that no government will touch.” That reputation was only exacerbated when the Supreme Court rejected the Communications Decency Act, which clumsily aimed to curb the obscenity–whatever that is–so rampant on the Net.

Yet despite its reputation, the Internet is increasingly becoming a hunting ground for law enforcement, with vigilantes prowling for cyber pornographers and the feds–all sorts of feds–after fugitives of all stripes. Along withthe FBI–whose site became front-page news during the hunt for Andrew Cunanan (whose photo is now slapped with a red “FOUND DEAD” banner)–law enforcement agencies from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the U.S. marshals are making their manhunts more interactive by posting profiles of their most wanted on the Web.

The mug shots are proving so popular that there’s an entire site devoted to them. The World’s Most Wanted provides a panoply of crime, with mugs of rapists from Alabama, bail jumpers from Arizona, and deadbeat dads from all over. The nonprofit site collects the rogues for its gallery from bounty hunters andpolice departments in 46 states.

“I got tired of hearing all the bad stuff aboutthe Internet,” says Most Wanted creator Dave Farrell. “My idea was to create one single site agencies can use to provide information, and people can come to and find something.” Farrell, a reserve deputy sheriff in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, who also runs a computer consulting company, says his site does bring them in: a Nevada deputy browsing the site came across a man wanted by police in Wisconsin–who just happened to be sitting in his jail.

In New York, the state police also favor the wanted-poster model–most of the Web site is dedicated to lineups of fugitives and missing children. But the site also has offerings that seem experimental, like the graphic photo of an unidentified corpse found upstate in 1979–just in case anybody might recognize her after 18 years.

The NYPD Web site makes at least a token gesture at recognizing its online audience. One page asks visitors whether they have “chatted”with Oliver Jovanovic, the alleged cyberstalker arrested last December for the rape and torture of a woman he met in an AOL chat room.

Eventually, the NYPD promises its site will link New Yorkers to what’s going on in their precincts and neighborhoods. But for now, the mug shots–broken down by borough–are the main attraction. There are dozens of them: murderers, rapists, thieves. And though the choices at times seem random (is there really no one worse than Brooklyn’s David Markowitz, who allegedly punched someone in the face with brass knuckles three years ago?), the idea that these criminals are walking our streets is, admittedly, disturbing.

Alongside those who use the Internet to cleanup the real world, there are those for whom it’s a beat to be trolled for illegal activity. Federal and local agencies have ongoing child-porn stings, and the FBI has created a computer-crimes unit dedicated to the pursuit of hackers and scam artists. “It’s like the wild, wild West out there,” says detective Michael Geraghty, who works for the computer-crimes unit of the New Jersey State Police and is president of the High Technology Crime Investigations Association’s Northeast chapter. “We see everything from rapes, murder, drug deals, to hacking and child porn. Everything you read about that’s happening on the street is happening online.”

While the Jovanovics make the big headlines, Geraghty says “there’s a lot more out there than what you hear about,” especially corporate crime. When a hacker breaks a company’s security, for instance, the HTCIA, a coalition of police and private companies, is very cautious not to publicize the breach, for fear of inviting more spelunkers–or panicking investors. “We try to treat them almost like a rape victim,” says Geraghty. “We’ll protect their identity.”

For many Internet aficionados–a notoriously antiauthoritarian lot–the thought of an increased police presence is distressing. Geraghty is familiar with the complaint, and assures that his unit, for one, actively avoids anything that resembles a “witch-hunt.” But even if they wantedto go after the little guy, there’s no way, with the technology still new to police and resources what they are, that cops can effectively pursue what Geraghty calls a “surf and protect” strategy. “There’s a lot going on out there, and there’s no way we can keep on top of it all,” says Geraghty. “Until law enforcement gets further educated in this, we’re always going to be behind the eightball.”


Westport’s Dragon Lady

A cat’s eye will follow a tossed sock as quickly as a hummingbird’s flight, and any fool can catch this culture’s fancy. But only a handful of those who attract attention go on to become fixtures in a landscape that’s given up on wondering why they’re blocking the view. Martha Stewart crossed that line years ago–and sure, it’s depressing to think that Westport’s dragon lady of upscale busywork outlasted Madonna. But that was Madonna’s fault; she didn’t give her fans enough to do. Needless to say, what with the glue guns and the fennel and the hand-stitched shower curtains for the birdbath, no woman crazed enough to act on all of Stewart’s nostrums will ever find herself at that kind of loss. Busywork, my foot–boot-camp Marines must get more sleep, and probably experience fewer anxieties over how they’re measuring up.

All the same, to maybe half her own audience, Stewart’s a figure of fun–they mine her books for tips while finding her affectations preposterous. At your local newsstand, her hoity-toity lifestyle bibles have been spoofed, if anything, too fondly, in Is Martha Stuart Living? and its followup, Martha Stuart’s Better Than You at Entertaining. This summer, she’s been outed as a virago in an unauthorized biography (Just Desserts, by Jerry Oppenheimer). Yet she goes on and on. Any overachiever so splendidly humorless as to style her corporate umbrella “Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.”–as Stewart has since buying her way free of Time Warner early this year–is unlikely to be fazed by mere derision. Although her name recognition with the general public has probably peaked, her special cosmos keeps expanding; surprisingly late in the day, she’s now online, and her syndicated TV show has just started airing six days a week.

Well, whatcha gonna do? Nobody’s ever gone broke overestimating the insecurities of the American middle class–and being uncommonly jailed by them herself, the former Martha Kostyra of unswanky Nutley, New Jersey, knows better than you just where the short hairs are most grabable. Still, if you’ve never seen her TV show, as I hadn’t until she went daily, you may be nonplussed by the grimness with which Stewart undertakes the piffling business at hand. Welcoming she isn’t; you aren’t here to relax.

Although she does smile on occasion, as if she’s just heard a pistol shot reminding her to, her usual expression is stern, a bit like the one in Zelda Fitzgerald’s self-portraits after she’d gone insane. Instead of calming viewers’ fears about the tricky sailing ahead, as most TV chefs’ jolly prattle is meant to, her marginal remarks about the simplest tasks add tiny increments of tension: “You can overheat,” she warned one day before setting the stove to bake chocolate-chip cookies, “so just be careful”–flinty pause–“not to.” As she held up samples of the finished product, some stagehand fired a pistol, and Martha smiled: “And that’s our Cookie of the Week.” From where I sat, they all looked burned to a crisp, but what do I know about cookies? I only eat the damned things.

Stewart does plenty besides cook, of course. Of the unpredictable subject headings that drift across the screen like subliminal inserts slowed to a crawl for lip-readers–from the down-to-earth “Gardening” to the vapid “Good Thing”–the most ominous is the word “Project.” This can mean anything from repainting the front door, which is at least practical (“I’m not going to get paint all over my pretty brass hardware,” said Martha, brandishing masking tape), to devoting inordinate outlays of time, concentration, and (always) equipment to the home manufacture of tchotchkes like sun prints on light-sensitive paper or little boxes made of glass. Even Stewart can’t quite figure out a term for these bibelots, much less a use for them. She usually just calls them “objects,” in a lovely example of false-genteel vocabulary–as in “the beautiful object.”

However, Stewart confronting nature is Stewart at her most determined, since no matter how often she goes down on her knees to it, their relationship is basically adversarial. It just wants to grow, more or less appealingly; she wants to brand it with her genius for artifice. If plants could scream, they would when they saw her coming–it’s Dachau for fuchsias. Actually, it was the turn of hydrangeas a week or two back: “What an easy way to prolong the life of a flower,” said Martha as the gun went off, having blanched the stems in boiling water, dipped them in alum, and covered the tops with paper towels (white only, remember–dyed ones can stain) before blasting them with a spritzer. At least the hydrangeas still looked more or less like flowers afterward; they might have been pressed into service for one of her objects instead.

On this level, making fun of Stewart has always been as easy as shooting sturgeon in a tureen. In her world, the means justify the ends. Yet even her detractors usually assume she’s good at what she does; they simply find what she does trivial, and her approach to it ridiculously mannered. For my money, though, she’s just awful at what she does–at least if you take her word for what she’s doing. When it comes to glossy, florid chichi, Lee Bailey’s Southern-themed books make Stewart look like a piker. But just like robust sensualist Julia Child and my fallen idol Jeff Smith, Bailey also genuinely loves food, which I doubt Martha does. In fact, the basic attitude she projects toward all her materials, under whatever gently wafted heading, is hostility–who’d dream of calling her an epicure? As Oppenheimer’s bio recounts, a number of the recipes that she didn’t filch outright from other cookbooks for her debut, Entertaining, turned out to be unworkable; she’d never bothered to test them. Even so, the book launched her spectacular career, proving that her fellow suburban strivers just love a good horror story.

As you watch Stewart needlessly complicate every job she undertakes, apparently without ever having asked herself its purpose, it dawns on you that this must be a parable of sorts. But about what? In this case, I suspect, class struggle–which in this country almost invariably means the struggle to get into one, not usurp it. Yet it’s also a parable of alienation, since most American strivers are deeply puzzled over why the blue-chip version of the good life that’s held up to them seems to involve so much poppycock. Like the latter-day Calvinist she is, Martha promises her viewers that they can achieve gentility if they only work hard enough at the silly but fraught tasks she sets–a conundrum of sorts, since the definition of gentility is not having to work at it. Unless she’s dumber than I think, she herself must wake up every morning fully aware that Westport’s bluebloods will go to their graves still thinking of her as that Polack chippy with the trowel. Since her value system doesn’t permit her to hate them back, she takes out her raging aggressions instead on helpless plants and foodstuffs–wow, the very tools of her trade, and talk about displacement. Marx would understand this, even if Martha doesn’t.

According to Oppenheimer, she was never more berserk than in the interlude between her fizzled career as a stockbroker and her launch into the catering business–when cooking and gardening was all she could do. If tranquility had ever interested her, those might have been pleasant times. But for someone whose goal in life is proving herself, this was a claustrophobic arena. Of course, it’s also precisely the ambit that Stewart now sells back to her viewers as fulfilling, which must mean she just doesn’t think they’re as driven as she is. Who could be? In her deliberately frilly way, she also defines her pursuits as purely feminine bailiwicks, to oppressive effect. Keep in mind, at one level her story is stark tragedy–all that braininess and ambition deserved a better object. So did Phyllis Schafly’s.

Then again, if Stewart wasn’t acting out all this murky stuff for our benefit, she’d be a lot less interesting to think about. To see so many of American life’s abiding grotesqueries emerge from such unlikely developing fluid is uncanny; the line from Pilgrims hacking away at the Injun-concealing forest they hated to Martha bashing her garden into perfect order is shorter than you might expect. So’s the line between her and Theodore Dreiser’s status-hungry Clyde Griffiths. But that’s also why the show isn’t much fun to watch. It may be the loneliest half hour on television.

Bar Nun

The BBC import Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, now airing Sundays on PBS, is certainly charming as all get-out–the camera’s alert to the drollness of that molelike figure in its black habit, gamely traipsing through another museum to find the masterpiece our 67-year-old Carmelite tour guide can’t wait to burble on about. Well, don’t let a low tolerance for whimsy cheat you. Whatever else she is, Sister Wendy may be the most unabashed romantic ever let loose on Western art for our lecture-glazed benefit. When was the last time–if ever–you heard anybody get this excited about Giotto?

Although she’s hardly the aesthetic naif you’d gather from the art critics nettled by her trespassing, she seems to have schooled herself so she could articulate her enthusiasms–which gets the horse and cart in the right order, if you ask me. However enraptured and–by jargonaut standards–simplistic, she’s always specific, unfazed, and shrewd. If the Mona Lisa is a tribute to “the eternal mystery of womanhood,” that’s well and good for Leonardo; the sitter, however, “is probably within smelling distance of her kitchen…and she’s amused.”

Of course, that’s just the better to praise a Genius–Sister Wendy’s no revisionist. Still, she’s got surprises up her capacious sleeves, and one in the September 21 installment is astonishing. If Artemesia Gentileschi isn’t a name to you either, we must both have ye olde patriarchy to thank for our ignorance of 17th-century Italy’s greatest (only?) woman painter; Gentileschi, whose obsessive subject was the story of Judith and Holofernes, makes Andrea Dworkin look boy-crazy.

Even so, you don’t watch this show for its discoveries. You watch it for a way of talking about art that crit-speak rarely leaves room for–agog, delighted, runnething over. The carpers aren’t all wrong: the nun’s story leaves a lot out. But if you can’t respond at this level, well–then all that other stuff doesn’t have much point, now does it? –T.C.


Ultimate Ultima

Lord British, ruler of Britannia, sat quietly at his throne, wondering if he should go on another tour of his kingdom. The people certainly would want to see their Lord and, gee, wouldn’t he love to show off. The satin robe that had arrived last week was all shimmery and soft, and he had yet to display its splendor. Yes, British decided, he would go out and address his subjects.

He arrived at a gathering of Britannia’s citizens. Knights, warriors, mages, farmers, bakers, and fishers stood side by side with thieves, killers, and henchmen. When the throng grew large enough, British walked toward the masses. Meanwhile, a lowly thief named Rainz was frantically moving through the crowd. He was looking for something to steal, something he could kill with.

Oblivious to the impending evil, Lord British began his speech. He had no idea that, despite being absolute ruler, he was no longer invincible. Rainz had seized a knight’s book of magic, found a spell, and begun reading it aloud. In moments a wall of fire appeared before the Lord and his entourage. “Ah ha ha, you can’t kill me!” yelled Lord British. And he walked into the flames.

This is not Dungeons & Dragons or a fantasy fiction novel. Rather, it’s Ultima Online, an Internet role playing game, or RPG, that allows real people to travel around in an enormous virtual world and behave even more emotionally than they do in their usual reality. It is a huge advance over well-known RPG titles like Doom, in which single users play against the computer. Ultima, based on earlier games created by Richard Garriott, a/k/a Lord British, is expected to have a minimum of 50,000 users–of whom 5000 to 9000 can play at one time.

The Ultima universe is not only far more populous than most chat rooms and other virtual spaces, it is bigger than many small towns. The game is currently being beta-tested, but will go live at the end of the month. “It has been awaited by the industry as something that might be a watershed,” says Seema Choudhury, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Ultima Online is definitely pushing the bounds of the technology.”

“I guess you could say it’s a game about having a shared experience,” says Garriott, whose company is Origin Systems. “Through the Internet vast numbers of people are accessing data without interacting with each other. And that’s unneeded. The key element to this game is to provide the players with a sandbox with enough interesting things so they can interact.”

Garriott’s playground is a fantasy space called Britannia–as its name suggests, it looks just like medieval Europe. The virtual geography is so large that Britannia would take up a football field of monitors if displayed in its entirety. The starter software will be sold for about $50 in major software outlets. Users will then plug into the Net, paying about $10 a month for unlimited play. That’s a lot more than other games charge, but less than the monthly bills for other types of virtual sandboxes, like America Online or the Microsoft Network. “Right now, consumers are willing to pay for this type of Net connection versus others, or even along with others,” says Jay Kim, of industry analysts Paul Kagan Associates. “And the Ultima market has a 15-year history with its previous single-player RPGs.”

Before entering Garriott’s sandbox, players choose what they will be– anything from baker to knight, thief to mage (magician). They can also select clothing, a size and shape, and skin color (orange is an option). Finally, they develop a character. Even though the themes are based on fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, the dynamic is new. Players are asked to answer a number of questions probing their personality. The game character’s abilities (to learn new skills, say) are based on this profile. The game does not so much create an alter ego as an extended ego. You, by some funny process of transcendence, become another. “In most fantasy games the storyline was to kill the evil wizard,” says Garriott. “But that’s not really you. It’s not necessarily your motivation. In Britannia, the character really is you.”

Ali Shahrooz was one of 25,000 people beta-testing the game (so far, up to 3000 people have played at a time). He invented Rainz, a game character who wanted nothing more than to kill Lord British. “I don’t know, I just thought I could do it,” says Shahrooz. “I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge.”

The feat should have been impossible, because Garriott had decided that Lord British should be all-powerful. He wrote a set of codes recognizing his extended ego as “invincible.” But Rainz/Shahrooz was fortunate enough to strike at a time when the program glitched Garriott’s “invincible” code. The thief’s fire wall became a mortal threat and the scene turned to mayhem. When it was over, Lord British lay dead on the ground. Daemons had overreacted and slain innocent citizens. Rainz had been killed in the crossfire.

Britannia is a closed economy with limited resources. Its citizens, much like ours, will be competing for basic needs–food, shelter, clothing. They will employ a range of skills, some of them devious, including fighting, thieving, and magic. And therein lies the players’ only specific goal–to be all that they can be.

“When Ultima comes out, my plan is to take over an island economy,” says Jason Merrell, a beta tester. “I want to corner the market on an item, like bows, and run that monopoly. Retire rich, you know.” Merrell played everything from animal tamer to bowier (maker of bows) in the beta test and was able to purchase a ship with the money he made. “Bowiering was a great industry,” he says. “Everyone wants them.”

Other beta players report that the social interaction is what makes the game unique. In the world of PC games, high-end 64-bit platforms, and arcades, social interaction isn’t a norm. “But that’s why it’s such a fabulous game,” says tester Bob Perez. “Here you have groups that work together. You wouldn’t last very long by yourself.” Ultima was designed with this in mind. Every character has a specific skill, whether it be fighting or farming, but not any one character can develop all of them–you need to band with other characters who can exploit different talents.

“What’s cool is that you can go on adventures with so many different types of people,” says Tim Martin, who’s new to online gaming. Indeed, Ultima hopes to be more democratic than many other RPGs–newbies and otaku (hardcore) players will have equal chance to survive. In other RPGs, the up-all-night players gain a certain elite status and powers in return for the hours they put in. Ultima has a more inclusive politics–something the Net desperately needs if it wants to thrive.

Ultima claims to be a breakthrough in gaming, and for once that seems to be more than just hype. Its use of the Net is the first to approximate the cyberpunk visions of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson–the graphics-intense interface and sense of geography engender a more authentic virtual community than the cursory relationships found in chat rooms, or even the heady text-based wordplay in MUDs and MOOs. Cyberspace may not yet have arrived–but it’s a giant step closer.

Within minutes of his shocking “death,” Lord British was revived by Garriott, his all-powerful creator. Rainz was not so lucky; he remained a ghost. His human avatar, Shahrooz, was subsequently banned from the beta test–but not, Garriott insists, for his assassination of Lord British. He says Shahrooz had been exploiting other bugs in the program and not reporting them.

“I can understand why they banned me,” says Shahrooz. “But I like the game. The possibilities are endless. I’ll definitely play it when it comes out. The only thing is, I’ve already killed Lord British. I’ll have to find a new purpose.”


Network Not Funny

ABC got a lot of flak this summer for its cynical ad campaign insisting that TV’s guilty pleasures be indulged nonstop. Now in its “most aggressive fall launch ever,” the third-place network, whether out of daring or desperation, is still hitting away at the “pundits, moralists and self-righteous, self-appointed preservers of our culture [who] have told us that television is bad.”

Loosely called “TV is Good,” the first phase of the campaign produced TV and print ads in a flat, underachieving black typeface on a yellow background with nuggets of raffish wisdom: “8 hours a day, that’s all we ask.” “You can talk to your wife anytime.” “It’s a beautiful day, what are you doing outside?” “Hobbies, Schmobbies.” Each quip was followed by the ABC logo, which served as the jolting punchline. But ABC apparently lost its nerve in going all the Know-Nothing way and withdrew an earlier line: “Books are overrated.”

The ad focus has shifted now to promoting specific shows, but the “TV is Good” message–and aren’t we bad for saying it!–still bleats on. Most strikingly, there’s ABC sitcomer Drew Carey, holding up a small reproduction of the Mona Lisa near a huge TV set beaming the ABC logo. “Which would you rather look at–this or this?” he asks, pointing to each. As he tosses da Vinci’s masterpiece carelessly over his shoulder, he says cheekily, “I thought so.” I always thought, Drew Carey is overrated.

More succinctly, another new spot dwells on a cow in a pasture doing nothing; then the black-on-yellow words come on: “TV. What would you watch without it?” Yeah, yeah, stacking the deck with boring objects (previous spots featured fly zappers and Jell-O) is supposed to be part of the humor, though it was so ironic I forgot to sneer. But underneath the hilarity, the ads turn on the presumption that no one has the imagination to look at or think of anything other than the sexy loud flashing objects a “hip” media places before their eyes.

The lack of anything going on in one’s head is bolstered by ABC’s frequent references to brains: “Don’t worry, you’ve got billions of brain cells,” went one summer ad, while another stated, “Scientists say we use 10% of our brain. That’s way too much.” (TV as a stand-in for the human brain is not an uncommon come-on: “You only use 11% of its potential,” a headline reads under a drawing of a brain in a magazine ad for DSS satellite dishes; then under a TV set: “Ditto.”) The brainlessness required for watching most TV is no pained admission on ABC’s part, but a sloshed frat-boy point of pride: “Let us celebrate our cerebral-free non-activity,” as an ABC ad in TV Guide says archly.

Why stop at the human brain? In one of the latest commercials, a bunch of beefy football players kneel down in a circle, but instead of joining in a pregame prayer, they sing unto Disney, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” We’re supposed to be so amused by the old juxtaposition of brutes with hearts that we don’t notice how the Disney corporation (which is ABC’s parent, of course) is replacing God.

So if TV is bigger than God, art, and brains, where does that leave ABC? Sure, it’s all supposed to be “over the top” (which is actually the name of a new ABC sitcom), but over-the-top humor doesn’t quite work when tops were long ago blown away and the unthinkably ridiculous is already true. Is ABC saying something really, really bad, or is it just being brutally honest?

Clearly, the network is aiming for a younger, more happening audience (an ad for PrimeTime Live announces, “Sam and Diane are ready to rock”). And for anybody willing to believe that they’re defying the antipleasure elitists by slathering themselves in cathode rays and shouting, “Hell yes, I’m going to take it even more!”

Perhaps this is how to rent an identity. Do a lot of research, pinpoint what people want, have an ad agency design you a costume so you can be that thing. When ABC and its agency, TBWA Chiat/Day, discovered that “less than 10% of Americans can name any network tagline” (such as CBS’s “Welcome Home” or NBC’s “Must See TV”), and that “over 90% of Americans answer the question, ëHow do you spend your leisure time?’ with ‘To recuperate from working’–presto, came ABC’s fresh new persona, fashioned completely to give viewers permission to not feel guilty for vegging out in front of the TV.

Which is what the average household does for more than seven hours a day. Clever lines about brain cells and beautiful days aside, we watch not just to recuperate but to deaden and stupefy ourselves. In criticizing TV, I can already hear its defenders roaring back that there’s great, fascinating, brilliant stuff on it. And that’s absolutely true. (Basically, for me, it’s Larry Sanders, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, The SimpsonsThe Tick, Seinfeld, and Prime Suspect–whoops, not too much on the nets or ABC, though Spin City is enjoyable.) But criticizing TV is not primarily about criticizing the shows. The sum is number than the parts.

That may be another reason the “TV is Good” campaign doesn’t yet seem to be working. The average household rating for ABC actually went down slightly from August ’96 to August ’97, from 6.8 to 6.5, according to Nielsen figures. ABC says it’s unfair to judge the campaign’s effectiveness until the new season gears up, starting this week. Still, Chiat/Day is now famous for the very funny, very creative Nissan commercials that haven’t done a thing to bump up sales.

TV is just too rich, enormous, and complex for a singular, simple message about it to come off as anything but a bit suspect. We all know TV too intimately–its good, its bad, its constant harangue to buy products, celebrities, and its own formulas; the fear of turning it off, the bracing silence when you finally do. We know TV fever as well as TV fun the way convent-bred adolescents once knew the Church.

The ability to tell the flop-till-you-drop joke also depends on who’s telling it. “If Comedy Central did the same thing, it could go over a lot better,” says a young woman who disliked the ads so much she altered about 20 ABC posters, mostly in the East Village and Soho. To ABC’s “Husband not funny?” she added, “Trust us, the sitcoms on ABC are even less funny.” To “You can talk to your wife anytime,” she asked, “So why don’t you?” And to “8 hours a day is all we ask,” she added, “12 hours at 28 cents an hour is what ABC’s parents at Disney pay their workers in Haiti.”

She wasn’t the only one the ads drove to subversion. “The third time I went out to do it, I saw that half the ads in the Lower East Side had been defaced already”–and former defacements already repaired, apparently by ABC, she says. “It was an easy campaign to pick, because it was so horrible–it’s that whole sort of bogus ironic tone that I find so irritating. Don’t try to act like you’re on my side.”

That’s part of the problem, at least for ABC: it’s hard to put your finger on just what kind of humor it’s trying to get over. The messages are too weighted and loaded to work as sharp irony. And it’s not quite an anti-advertising ad campaign either, the kind that pokes fun at something resembling itself–a la the Sprite or Miller Beer “Dick” ads–because it straight-out promotes what it says it promotes.

If anything, the schtick is much more the old-style tongue-in-cheek adman elbowing your ribs, usually by so outrageously overstating something that we’re supposed to be charmed. As ABC marketing vice president Alan Cohen explained in a press conference introducing the ads, when focus groups first saw them, “They said, ‘Wow, this is funny. ABC is funny. They must have good comedies.’ And that’s exactly the connection that we wanted to make. So I’m not sure people are going to take it so literally and think this is evil.” It’s all about how TV “fits into [people’s] lives, how it in fact was part of some family interaction that maybe they don’t have at the dinner table,” added Chiat/Day chairman Lee Clow. “So, we just thought if we could kind of be honest, maybe everybody else would kind of come along with a similar honest feeling.”

I believe that at face value, that at some point ABC and Chiat/Day did indeed think so innocently about it. But the kind of humor they eventually used to market “honesty” is the ever more popular bad-boy breed that rides the stallion of political incorrectness–the catch-all excuse to attack things “good” for you, and/or things vaguely liberal. My, do we all want to be able to shout, “We’re bad!” as our cornered little way to rebel against…what? The “establishment,” which now licenses out methods to express the badness–like watching more TV?

In fact, ABC’s new humor most closely resembles those Benson & Hedges ads that showed people forced to sit on the wings of airborne planes in order to smoke cigarettes with abandon. Even more, it’s like that feisty attitude squared: the cult of nouveau cigar-smokers, folks who can’t seem to truly express themselves–their pride in being assholes!–outside of a prefab symbol of defiant, ruddily successful individualism.

But ABC’s programming is not as brazenly politically incorrect as its ads. On Princess Di’s death, for instance, the network didn’t refuse to join every other media outlet in the world in going for saturation bombing, Mother Teresa be damned. In some ways it went further than most, presenting the spectacle of Barbara Walters and Elton John drowning in each other’s schmaltz.

Is TV bad? Is TV good? No, TV is glop.