Who can forget Sean Connery as 007? Smiling, square-jawed, never had a scratch on him. James Bond was spring fresh in every scene, ready for a cold martini and a hot babe. And Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Wasn’t he a smooth operator? Calculated, restrained, just the right amount of derring-do. And how about Robert Conrad, that gorgeous gunslinger from The Wild Wild West, effortlessly slipping in and out of trouble and relishing every minute of it. And Mission Impossible, the original, with solemn Peter Graves and shrewd Barbara Bain. I loved that self-destructing tape, the quiet gravity with which the missions were accepted and the grace with which they were accomplished.
One of the features that distinguished these TV shows was how neatly the heroes sidestepped bodily harm. 007 was on the brink of annihilation in every movie but used his wits, and often some thrilling gadget, to elude his torturous predicaments. Robert Conrad availed his gymnastic prowess, along with the futuristic features of his luxury train. The men from U.N.C.L.E employed smarts, hi-tech communication devices and a versatile firearm known simply as “The Gun.” The Mission Impossible agents were endowed with a protective canniness and a spectacular range of disguises. There was violence in these shows, to be sure, but kills were bullet-clean, and the camera did not linger over them. Gore was not the point.
Fast forward to the Mission Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise in which Ethan Hunt plunges repeatedly into brutal protracted slugfests. The first 30 seconds of these battles would put any mortal in ICU, or worse, but Ethan keeps coming back for more, enduring multiple lacerations and contusions before emerging in the next scene with just a few tidy scars to remind us of his durability.
Another thing we didn’t see much of in those early TV series were explosions. Now they’re everywhere, one colossal deafening fireball after another, coupled with billowing black smoke and flying chunks of mortar and steel. The challenge, I’ve heard, is to see how enormous these explosions can appear on screen while maintaining relative safety on the set.
And then there’s hyper-speed, the most overused special effect of our time. From knife fights to space ship battles, overdrive is the numbing norm. That these scenes are too fast to follow and too numerous to sustain interest doesn’t seem to matter.
What is next? What is the follow-up to bloody beatings, fireballs and warp speed? What is left on that big screen to bowl us over? Not those flimsy “reality shows” with hoarders and naked survivors and duck hunters. And not the next tier, where people dare each other to eat pig eyes or throw themselves onto giant obstacle courses or brawl inside cages. Those games will no longer suffice.
We will have to have the real thing. Real contestants fighting in real time with real consequences, the same entertainment Roman emperors used to placate the swollen, restless masses before the inevitable fall of the empire. We will sit not in amphitheaters but in our living rooms and sports bars. We will cheer for our brawny idols and watch them attack each other with increasingly frightening weapons, and how far we let these contests go will determine the speed of our own demise.
After a while, even this entertainment will not satisfy us, and we will turn to each other in bewilderment and despair and bottomless need, and slowly we will find our way back. Or not.