Bryson's America: A Magnificent Obsession with torpid TV

I HAVE been watching a movie called Magnificent Obsession lately. Made in 1954 and starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, it is one of those stupefyingly mediocre movies they made in abundance in the early 1950s, when people would still watch almost anything (as opposed to now, when you have to put in lots of fiery explosions and at least one scene involving the hero abseiling down a liftshaft).

Anyway; if I've got it right, Magnificent Obsession involves a handsome young racing-car driver played by Rock, who carelessly causes Ms Wyman to go blind in a car crash. Rock is so consumed with guilt at this that he goes off and studies eye medicine at the "University of Oxford, England", or some place, then comes back to Perfectville under an assumed name and dedicates his life to restoring Jane's sight. Only of course she doesn't know it's him on account of she is blind, as well as apparently a little slow with regard to recognising the voices of people who have left her maimed.

Needless to say, they fall in love and she gets her sight back. The best scene is when Rock removes her bandages and she says, "Why, it's... you!" and slumps into a comely faint, but unfortunately does not strike her head a sharp blow and lose her vision again, which would have improved the story considerably, if you ask me. Also Jane has a 10-year-old daughter played by one of those syrupy, pig-tailed, revoltingly precocious child actors of the Fifties that you just ache to push out of a high window. I expect also Lloyd Nolan is in there somewhere, because Lloyd Nolan is always in 1950s movies with parts for doctors.

I may not have all the details right because I have not been watching this movie in order, or even on purpose. I have been watching it because one of our cable channels has shown it at least 54 times in the last two months, and I keep coming across it while trawling around looking for something I actually want to watch.

You cannot believe - you really cannot believe - the awfulness, the jaw- slackening direness, of American television. Oh, I know that British TV can be pretty appalling itself. I lived in England for 20 years, so I am well acquainted with the dismay that comes when you look at the television listings and discover that the featured highlights for the evening are Carry On Ogling, a nature special on ice maggots of Lake Baikal, and a new Jeremy Beadle series called Ooh, I Think I May Be Sick. But even at its grimmest - even when you find yourself choosing between Prisoner: Cell Block H and Peter Snow being genuinely interested in European farm subsidies - British TV cannot begin to touch American television for the capacity to make you want to go out and lie down on a motorway.

We get about 50 channels in our house - it is possible on some systems now to get up to 200, I believe - so you think at first that you are going to be spoiled for choice, but you gradually realise that the idea of TV here is simply to fill up the air with any old sludge. Programmes that even Sky One would be embarrassed to put on (I know, it hardly seems possible, but it is so) here get lavish airtime. It is as if the programmers just pull down a cassette from the shelves and slap it into the machine.

I have watched "current affairs" investigations that were 10 years old. I have seen Barbara Walters interviewing people who died a dozen years ago, and weren't that interesting to begin with. Seven nights a week you can watch Johnny Carson shows that were witless in 1976 and now are witless and dated. There is almost no concept that TV might, just sometimes, be innovative and good. On this very evening, under the category of "drama", my cable channel magazine lists as its most sublime and compelling offerings Matlock and Little House on the Prairie. Tomorrow it recommends The Waltons and Dallas. The next day it is Dallas again and Murder, She Wrote.

You begin to wonder who watches it all. One of our channels is a 24-hour cartoon network. That there are people out there who wish to watch cartoons through the night is remarkable enough, but what is truly astounding to me is that the channel carries commercials. What could you possibly sell to people who voluntarily watch Deputy Dawg at 2.30am? Bibs?

But perhaps the most mind-numbing feature of American television is that the same programmes are shown over and over at the same times each night. Tonight, at 9.30pm on Channel 20, we can watch The Munsters. Tomorrow night, at 9.30pm on Channel 20, it will be - did you guess correctly? - The Munsters. Each Munsters showing is preceded by an episode of Happy Days and followed by an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It has been like this for years, as far as I can tell, and will stay like this forever.

And it is like this on virtually every channel for every time slot. If you turn on the Discovery channel and find a programme on Hollywood stunts (and you will), you can be certain that the next time you turn to the Discovery channel at the same hour, it will be a programme on Hollywood stunts. Probably it will be the same episode.

With so many channels to choose from, and nearly all of it so hopelessly undiverting, you don't actually watch anything. And that is the scary part of all this. Although American television is totally imbecilic, although it makes you weep and rend your hair and throw soft foods at the screen, it is also strangely irresistible. As a friend once explained to me, you don't watch television here to see what is on, you watch it to see what else is on.

And the one thing to be said for American TV is that there is always something else on. You can trawl infinitely. By the time you have reached the 50th channel you have forgotten what was on the first, so you start the cycle again in the pathetically optimistic hope that you might find something absorbing this time through.

I haven't begun to cover this topic. TV is my life, so we'll be coming back to this a lot in future months. But I must leave you now. I notice that Magnificent Obsession is about to start and I really would like to see Jane Wyman lose her sight. It's the best part. Besides, I keep thinking that if I watch long enough Lloyd Nolan will shove that little girl out of an upstairs window.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country', published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own