New Bedlam offers a different kind of reality TV
You'd think from the title that New Bedlam (Penguin Press, 352 pages, $25) is committed to the broadly satirical. Well, early on it does get a little Hee-Haw meets The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight when, as a prank, some Native American bones are stolen from a museum to turn a construction project into an Indian burial ground. And that gets bookended toward the conclusion with the same wacky perpetrator dragging a lobster trap containing an enraged raccoon to the ocean to drown it, only to be busted by an hysterical troop of Girl Scouts.
But Bill Flanagan has tastier fish to fry than this hapless character, a cable TV executive who represents how comical the species can get if allowed to breed unchecked. It’s the mentality of the television industry that’s in the spotlight here, represented by a microcosm, a family-owned regional cable company based in the aptly named New Bedlam, Rhode Island.
New York network executive Bobby Kahn, 33, has just been fired, taking the fall for a rigging scandal with the hit reality show I’ll Eat Anything! Before word gets out and he’s a pariah, he grabs the lifeline of a step-down job offer: pumping up the programming at King Cable, a podunk New England operation. Old patriarch Dom King, who wishes his children had his knack for hatred, usually stays out of the way. Bobby’s challenge is to finesse his executive offspring: daughter Ann, who runs the artsy Eureka! channel; smart and preppy Skyler, who runs the BoomerBox sitcom rerun channel; and the clownish Kenny, who has turned his nerdy obsession with comic books into a cable channel.
Flanagan enjoys coming up with tacky specials for Kahn to urge onto the air, such as Who Slept with Who on Gilligan’s Island and Betty & Veronica: Madonna/Whore, and having Kahn push for emphasizing “sex and recrimination” on a fertility clinic program. He has a wonderful take on why successful TV executives are “much like supervillains”: because while their real aim might be to, say, make fun of fat kids, what they say is that they admire the chubsters’ spunk and determination.
As for locating the novel where he grew up, Flanagan gets in plenty of local color and commentary. He shamelessly exaggerates when he has Bobby notice “a half-dozen Dunkin’ Donuts in a two-mile stretch” but is on the money in describing clam cakes as “boiled grease cooked around what seemed to be a tennis ball.” (A writer for these pages in the early 1980s, Flanagan also adds such touches as a comedian named Phillipe Jorge playing a sex therapist in a new movie and a supermarket named Macnie’s.)
But New Bedlam is most interesting for the author’s ringside view of the actions and attitudes that have shaped the TV industry. That and his grab bag of insider trivia. Did you know that Robert Altman directed episodes of Bonanza and got fired for giving Hoss and Little Joe overlapping dialogue?
, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Robert Altman, Bill Flanagan