Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Vast Wasteland: not vast enough yet.

Each week in Die Zeit, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gives a short interview about a current news topic. Titled "Auf eine Zigarette mit Helmut Schmidt," the interview is supposed to last about as long as it takes for Herr Schmidt to smoke a cigarette. Last week Herr Schmidt was asked about the rejection of the Deutschen Fernsehpreis for 2008 by Marcel Reich-Ranicki. It was a big scandal back in October and a great story in and of itself, but Schmidt's comments got me thinking about my own love/hate relationship with television, particularly television in Germany.

At home in Utah I have no television reception. People ask me sometimes if I don't feel, that as a responsible citizen I should be watching the news regularly. I've watched network TV news in the US, and I can only laugh heartily at the suggestion that a responsible citizen could stay informed with such a silly medium. I hate commercials and TV's newest gambit, the reality show, puts Gilligan's Island in a positive light.

In Germany on the other hand, I enjoy television viewing. Not really because there is such a great difference in programming: they have a lot of the same Blödsinn (Herr Reich-Ranicki's word) that we have. But there are some good programs too. I often eat dinner in front of the tube, so I can catch the latest installment of Galileo. I enjoy the Tageschau news program and documentaries on the N24 or Phoenix channels. But what I really love is Tatort, a program that has been on television in Germany for 38 years and in May of 2008 aired it's 700th episode.

The concept wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell on the small screen in American, but it works well here: each of the regional TV channels which together form the ARD, plus the ORF (the Austrian public network,) produces its own episodes, starring its own Bullen with plenty of local color in the filming. There are exceptions, but most participating regional affiliates use the "cop buddy" format, frequently pairing opposites with one another. Most of my friends have favorite Kommissars and Sunday evening at 20:15, when Tatort is on, is a time held sacred by many Germans, from the most conservative CDU Spießer to the alternative Grün types.

Yes, Tatort has jumped the shark once or twice with it's most popular Kommissars (Shamanski, for example) but all in all, the quality of the writing is very good. Only about thirty episodes are produced annually, so no one Kommissar can get much exposure, always leaving the loyal viewer wanting more. Thanks to syndication, you can watch a Tatort almost any day of the week now and I jump around the dial most evenings to see if one of my favorite Kommissars might be on. And because scripts are often based on current topics and events, watching Tatort episodes sequentially from 1970 to present would make an excellent Modern German History course.

But I think everyone would agree, the finest thing about Tatort is its opening sequence: unchanged in 38 years. It's so bescheuert, it's fabulous. Only the music for the CBC radio show, As It Happens, even comes close. The fact is, Tatort makes me a little jealous. For all of the great programing that has come out of American television, we don't have anything to rival it. In a perfect world, I dream of an American cop series that would feature Kojak, Columbo, Jim Rockford, Steve McGarrett and a few carefully selected others on alternating weeks: unschlagbar. But the world isn't perfect, and as consolation, at least we have Tatort.

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