"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

I'm Sorry You're Such an Asshole


[i thought i wrote a little note last week saying i'd once again be writing alt tags on mondays, but now i can't find it anywhere.
that's a bad sign.]

Republican or Democrat, white or

black, there's a pretty fair

consensus that this is one

sorry-ass nation. As in: That

syphilis experiment? Sorry, our

bad! We ignored your genocide?

We'll do marginally better next

time! Bombed your embassy?

You'd better put some ice on

that! We tend to see the

Clintonian diplomatic hallmark -

i.e., Hallmark diplomacy - as a

reflection of the mass psyche of

the baby boomers or of the

waning of personal

responsibility in Marv Albert's

America. But more important than

either of those, it's the cheap

fix of the post-New-Deal era

that makes Reinventing

Government look profligate.

Transgressions that once might

have cost billions in

reparations now can be remedied

for the price of a rent-a-podium

and a bit of stationery. With

the ascendency of Blue Mountain

Arts, we may soon be able to zero

out the State Department



Bernie Taupin's sentiments

notwithstanding, "sorry" seems

to be not only the easiest word

but the cheapest; and thus, it

was only a matter of time until

someone applied this pennywise

discovery to the

ever-econo-minded sphere of

syndicated television. The

squawk genre, dealing with the

antipathy fatigue of an

over-Springered public, has been

shoehorning its material into

the game show-like formats of

Loveline, The Blame Game, and

Change of Heart, but perhaps the

savviest entrant is Fox

Television's Forgive or Forget.

This Theatre of Apology is

firmly yet gushingly presided

over by Mother Love, a matronly

welfare mother turned bus driver

turned therapist-cum-religious

figure. (The guests insert her

name with eerie devotion into

every other sentence: "Well,

Mother Love, I've been a

bigamist for eight years.") A

guest tells his, but usually

her, story, which is overheard

by a confessee. We can see her,

but more often him, on a

big-screen TV set in a yard

sale-style picture frame. Then

the confessor stands before a

giant door and receives a

judgment. (A Kafka scholar could

have a field day with this.)


[ been busy with other stuff, high faluting work crap that no one really cares about ]

If the confessee is there when

the door opens, forgiveness is

granted. If not, not. And

as mawkish as the device is, the

cold, unpitying spectacle of an

empty doorway is truly

gut-wrenching. Or it would be,

anyway, if most of the guests

actually seemed remorseful,

which, naturally, they don't.

Classicist yet timely, Forgive

showcases not so much apologies as

apologias: the bulk of its

guests show up to defend

themselves. Their apologies boil

down to: I'm sorry you're such

an asshole. Many don't ask

forgiveness at all. One demands

that her live-in lover and

father of her three (going on

four) children marry her.

Another insists that her husband

give her a second honeymoon

after a disastrous first spent

sleeping on her sister-in-law's

couch. The apologies we do hear

are minimasterpieces of

backhanded denial - "I

apologize. I tried to make up

for it. We have a beautiful

house. You haven't had to work

for five out of six years we've

been married. But, you know, I

apologize" - and


victim-blaming: "I was afraid to

ask her to forgive me. I thought

she'd cut me off again, Mother



Indeed, the genius and redeeming

value of Forgive or Forget is

that it proves the persistence

of a certain American dignity.

You can get someone to air a

homosexual crush to a homicidal

object of affection. Or you can

give them the stage to show off

their giant altered breasts or

their giant unaltered guts,

their love children and their

multiple wives/cousins/


But good luck finding someone to

go on TV to be truly sorry about

anything. (Undoubtably the lack

of anonymity must hurt. The late

conceptual artist Allan Bridge

did a much brisker business

getting New Yorkers to admit to

molestation, even murder, on his

no-names-needed Apology Line.)


Forgive has dealt with the

contrition gap admirably,

soliciting future guests with

topics appealing not to the

repentant but to the pissed-off

("You used me for sex! Now

apologize!") or lovelorn

("Roommate, I want you!"). It's

added a Confession Booth feature

- with an unacknowledged debt to

media hoaxer Joey Skaggs - where

New Yorkers line up on 42nd

Street to get on TV and 'fess up

to penny sins like cheating on

their diets and scamming US$5

from their children (whether

this is a sadder commentary on

contemporary modesty or the New

Times Square, you decide). The

segment even attracts repeat

visitors on the

frequent-absolution plan, who

seem to fancy themselves Mother

Love's beloved co-stars.


[got myself a guitar teacher with the patience of a saint and an understanding of my ill conceived affection for alt-country ]

But Forgive's most ingenious

innovation is bringing

dysfunction TV into the biotech

age: Some weeks, nearly every

episode includes a paternity

test. Mom, often with kid in

tow, cops to the relevant

infidelity - there are a lot of

one-night-stand pregnancies

among these fecund guests -

while Dad (or not) waits for the

centrifuge's Solomonic verdict.

Considering that advertisers

long ago realized the

edge-of-your-seat immediacy of

pregnancy tests, even filming

actual tests for commercials,

it's surprising that no one has

thought to marshal the

ever-increasing variety of

medical tests, which have all

the elements of classical drama

built-in: suspense, life versus

death, free will versus fate.


After all, if Sophocles could

make a seminal work of drama out

of sex and clouded paternity,

why couldn't KingWorld milk a

half-hour game show from it? We

have a populace of underinsured

who can't afford basic medical

care, as well as a home audience

willing to waste hours watching

that same demographic bitch-slap

one another on camera. Even

online-porn magnate Seth

Warshavsky has acknowledged the

can't-miss eyeball appeal of

free online surgery. Why not

serve everyone's needs with free

hospital access for anyone

willing to get their

cancer-gene, chlamydia, or

Tay-Sachs results on the air?


[spending lots of time in the garden performing miracles]

This scheme, at least, would do

someone some objective good,

which is more than one can say

for many of Forgive's sessions.

Editing a special Apology issue

of Civilization, Deborah Tannen,

the PBS donor's John Gray,

suggests the vogue for apology

might be a corrective to the

(book plug coming!) Argument

Culture, a necessary first step

toward healing. It'd be

interesting to see what Tannen

would make of a recent episode,

where a young woman wrenchingly

apologized to her briefly

cuckolded boyfriend and asked

him to be a father to her baby,

who she believed was really his

- so much so that she took a

paternity test. The answer: No

dice. It was another one-hit

wonder. Upon hearing the news,

the young man thanked his

lazy sperm and wished

her a good life.


As she sobbed herself raw and

then numbly took in Mother

Love's parting homily ("Honey,

you got to be strong for that

baby"), you could already see

her becoming a hardened, bitter

woman, facing a sleepless future

of diapers and bills. There may

have been a lesson learned; she

may have grown up a little. But

probably not. She did what

wealthier, more powerful people

sham on Larry King: asked for

mercy and left herself open for

punishment. And her prize was 18

years of kid-shackled poverty.

That may be why few people come

to Forgive for forgiveness:

Psychically and materially, they

can't afford to. It's easy to

repent in a speech or a memoir,

when there's no one to answer or

respond on cue. It's easy to ask

for an apology or restitution;

if you get turned down, it only

proves how right you were.

Really asking forgiveness

requires admitting the

possibility of rejection and

censure and, perhaps,

recognizing that you have done

the unforgivable. But much

worse, it requires accepting

your answer and shutting the

fuck up about it. And that, on

daytime television as in life,

is truly a bitch, Mother Love.

courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik



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