Double Jeopardy

But Quiz Show condemns Van Doren most harshly of all. At least Stempel ultimately levels with himself about the small evil he has committed; wash away the grating egotism and pompous speeches, and Stempel at least has some kind of ethical code, however Machiavellian. He saw his involvement in Twenty-One as a business transaction like any other: He was an actor performing on TV, and he expected to be rewarded in direct proportion to how well he did his job.

Van Doren is more complex, more infuriating, more elusive. He's ahead of his time, the prototype for every subspecies of creature to thrive in the vacuous environment of television -- the talk-show host, the network news anchor, the sportscaster, the advertising pitchman, anybody who ever got paid handsomely for saying his lines and not tripping over the camera cables.

The lesson Van Doren learns, the one Redford and Attanasio make apparent, is that on TV the appearance of sincerity and the illusion of humanity are greeted as if they were the things they imitate; artifice is reality and surfaces are depths. And Van Doren is the right man for a strange new era. Thanks to TV, which first became corporatized after World War II, achievement is now measured in terms of visibility and entertainment value, not eloquence or education or hard work or genuine achievement.

In this postwar promised land for the mediocre, it is better to be inoffensive, perhaps mildly amusing, than brilliant or unique or, Heaven forbid, unpredictable. As Richard Nixon, the Richard III of American politics, will soon prove in his disastrous 1960 televised debate with John F. Kennedy, an unattractive brilliant man will always come in second to the handsome intellectual wanna-be who speaks confidently into the camera; Nixon was Stempel to Kennedy's Van Doren. As The Selling of the President recorded in detail, Nixon and his public relations strike team learned their lesson; eight years later they avoided debates and conducted their campaign almost entirely through colorful, provocative, and utterly lowbrow TV commercials. The medium is the message; it is its own beginning and end, its own objective and reward, and it has no use for those who owe allegiance to some value beyond entertainment.

In a key scene, Scorsese's Geritol president tells Goodwin he's kidding himself if he thinks people will stay outraged for long over the quiz-show scandals, because they never watched the programs to see an awesome display of education and quick thinking in the first place: They watched the shows to see an awesome display, period. "They were watching the money," he says, leering at Goodwin. They were hooked on the suspense of it all. If they couldn't get their fix watching Twenty-One, they'd turn to wrestling or The Lone Ranger. Television, the Geritol boss explains, is not noble, nor was it ever meant to be. It's a vehicle by which to sell Geritol and soap and automobiles and materialistic fantasy. In the long run, he tells Goodwin, the Enrights and Freedmans of the world might be temporarily disgraced, but the people who pressured them to hoodwink the public in order to sell more Geritol will end up richer than ever.

What's worse is that the public probably won't even distinguish between the quiz shows themselves and the televised congressional hearings that probe their corruption; one will seem a part of the other, each part equally fun to watch, equally obfuscatory to notions of integrity or character.

"I thought we were gonna get television," Goodwin says bitterly. "The truth is that television is gonna get us." And he's right.

"The contestants take home prize money," Enright tells Goodwin. "The show gets good ratings, the sponsors get their money's worth, and the viewers are entertained. So what's the problem?"

The lure of televised celebrity is so strong that Stempel accords it godlike force; he even implies to Goodwin that TV left him no choice but to become corrupt. "They made me take a dive!" he keeps pealing.

"Herbert," Goodwin asks Stempel disapprovingly, "how could they make you take a dive?"

This exchange is key to understanding the film's buried optimistic heart. On first glance Quiz Show seems pervaded by an aura of hopelessness -- the feeling that no matter how nobly and justifiably people attack the medium of television, it will still swallow them up.

Law and government are corrupt, too. The film's re-created congressional hearings are deliberately photographed to evoke Watergate and Iran-Contra; lawyers feed their clients testimony like quiz-show questions, which makes sense because the outcome of the hearings was decided in advance. The truly powerful, says Quiz Show, will never be held accountable for wrongdoing; even their twitchy underlings, once sacrificed publicly, will probably bounce back. (In real life Enright bounced back to produce the successful Joker's Wild.)

Yet despite all this evidence that good is virtually powerless against evil, Quiz Show tells us, we still owe it to ourselves as Americans, and as human beings, to keep rewarding the righteous, and to behave righteously ourselves -- even when spotlights shine so seductively, beckoning us ever closer to the abyss. "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall," Van Doren's father tells him, quoting Shakespeare. And the film's final third will bear this out with painful exactness.

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