I think it’s important to have a TV show that you watch at least semi-regularly, and preferably, one that’s not very good. No high-end Mad Men, Sopranos, or The Wire here, but rather something so basic and primitive that it’s like walking out into the vast cultural wasteland of television, choosing an ordinary, mid-sized rock, and hitting yourself over the head with it.
No program was better in this regard than Walker, Texas Ranger, a show so elemental in its structure that it was virtually indistinguishable from the Lone Ranger reruns I used to watch as a child, and from which it was clearly descended. Walker ran a full hour, but there was still only one plotline per episode, with no subplots or side action to obscure the sharp edges of the story. There was even less moral ambiguity—the good guys were 100% good, the bad guys (insofar as you even saw them) were 100% bad, and the only moment of doubt was whether good was smart enough, quick enough, and strong enough to stop evil before it had made serious inroads into the community. Though, of course, it always was. With his face reflecting a weathered gravitas, Walker looked as if he had seen great evil, but that he could always be counted on to deliver it a roundhouse kick to the chest and march it off to jail. The Rangers fought evil with the implacable resolve of the Norse gods, yet without any hint of that troubling Ragnarök.
About a year ago, sick with the flu, I steeped myself in an NCIS rerun marathon and recognized it as the true inheritor of Walker’s legacy. Despite the larger and more eccentric cast, the show maintains the same simple moral clarity, and manages to do so even when it treads into much more suspect territory (like when everyone leaves Ziva, the Mossad operative, alone in a room with a suspect to extract information in ways unspecified, undocumented, and certainly illegal under American law—it's extreme rendition in miniature). Whatever they’ve glimpsed of the dark side in the course of the investigation falls away, and by the end of the episode the gang is squabbling and teasing each other like tweens on their way home from a field trip. It is, perhaps, the most infantile example of its entire genre, and this combination of serious police procedural and ridiculous adolescent hijinks led me to think I’d really found an obscurity, something that remained stuck to the side of the TV barrel mostly because nothing had been developed yet to take its place. Recently, however, I read on the cover of a supermarket checkout magazine that NCIS is the most popular TV show in America, and this has totally ruined it for me. I’m now in search of another rock to hit myself over the head with.