Commentary Magazine


TV's Professionals

To the Editor:

Harris Dienstfrey’s comments [“Doctors, Lawyers, and Other TV Heroes,” June] suggest that our TV professionals, white Protestants though they be, represent our desire for a “good” community . . . in which work has meaning for the total well-being of the society. . . . This seems a rather superficial observation. What is obvious about the “professional” shows is that the focus has shifted from work to the social situation surrounding it. To observe the trend toward “social adjustment,” we have only to contrast the original Medic show with Ben Casey. Whereas the primary concern on Medic was the saving of human life and the healing of the sick, on Ben Casey it no longer matters if a patient lives or dies. What is essential. . . is the moral righteousness of the patient as he dies. . . .

In light of the “patriotic” jargon of contemporary politics, TV’s “professional” message is a dangerous one. . . . “Heroic death” is no longer a possibility in the atomic age—one must not die heroically, but live meaningfully.

Evan Stark
Bronxville, New York

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To the Editor:

Harris Dienstfrey’s lucid analysis of the professional man as the new hero of television drama is so persuasive that it invites elaboration of the theme.

The television plays Mr. Dienstfrey discussed accept the professional in terms of the ideal public posture he adopts in real life. While this is true of all the new heroes, it is most easily demonstrated in the case of doctors. . . .

The Hippocratic Oath, which still haloes medical schools, academies, and associations, could almost serve as a character sketch for the protagonists of the first Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey. It contains the professed aim of helping fellow men, the absence of motives of personal gain, moral rectitude, and public devotion, the strong teacher-disciple relationship, and perhaps one or two others. Caduceus in one hand, stethoscope in the other, the doctor poses for the official portrait, which is transferred directly to the television screen.

When we flip the dial from television drama to the programs that claim to deal with reality—the special reports and analyses, the forums and panel discussions—we find that, in most of these, the professional also emerges as an ideal personification. I remember a program involving two doctor-representatives of the American Medical Association and two doctors who favored the proposed Medicare legislation for the aged. The arguments pro and con were based purely on the welfare of patients, with no hint that doctors or their societies (particularly the AMA!) might have less noble motives.

In television dramas, there are seldom, if ever, evil people. The evil usually arises out of the actions of sick, compulsive, uninformed, or misguided individuals who may even be good at heart. In “serious” television reports and discussions, social evils (apart from those originating in the Communist world) are not attributed to the acts of individuals and groups, but arise out of the complex, impersonal forces of society. No one “really” wants corruption, slums, segregation. Hence there is no conflict, but only a difference of opinion, and evil will eventually be eradicated by enlightened men of good will, which includes everyone, since no one is excluded. . . .

Joseph Mindel
Waban, Massachusetts

Mr. Dienstfrey writes:

Mr. Stark’s description of the professional dramas on television does not differ from mine. Where we differ is in our estimate. Mr. Stark, whose dim view implies he does not think highly of the audience, seems to believe the concern of the dramas with “social adjustment” is morally meretricious and even a form of political manipulation. I maintained to the contrary that although this concern usually manifests itself in depressingly authoritarian situations, it just the same reflects an anxiety on the part of the audience about the way they, and we, live now.

Mr. Mindel’s point about the core of fiction in the “reality” of many of TV’s public-service programs strikes me as being exactly right. Has he ever noticed, though, the reality in the “fiction”—the tendency of the professional dramas to handle topics (such as abortion) which the public-service programs almost never touch?

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