Elizabeth Smith is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. She has several short stories published in e-zines and magazines, including Terrain, Carve, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has an extensive collection of pulp Westerns from the fifties, and her own writing and visual artwork dip into the genre’s style. Her western fetish reaches the acme of expression on her blog CowboyLands: From the Land of the Cowboys to You; or, The Modern Buckeroo’s Guide to the World (http://blog.cowboylands.net/). She is a featured reader in New York City, and is the recipient of residencies and fellowships for her novels Loveland and You Only Get One Chance to Be El Latigo.

We Are Prime Time; or, Change (the Channel)
by Elizabeth Smith
January 19, 2009

In times of moral confusion
I turn to prime time
where good can conquer evil
in the space of sixty minutes (minus twenty for 3.9 percent financing on Chevy pickups
and Viagra porn).

Once upon a time
primetime showdowns between good and evil came in a haze of gun smoke and rawhide.
Men bristled with single-action revolvers and laconic one-two punches.
They had only half an hour
but without fail,
the good guy won.

(Good always won,
back then,
while these days it takes an entire season to conquer evil and the episodes are so confusing no one actually knows what happened,
or even if anyone won at all.)

We are what we watch.
Back then we used to be the cowboy, trim slacks and clean shirt aced with a tight concho
belt around our hips.
True to Cold War form, we’d posture and preen without crossing that line in the sand,
stroking guns and thumbing hats, staring and squinting, a d├ętente in a western
town on a vacuum-tube boob tube that shot ramrods up every child’s spine so he
or she would grow up to be good little yes/no-black/white-right/wrong fighters for the American way.
Back then the villains wore their badness on their sleeve and everyone acted according to
Back then the hero never said much but told the truth
and torture
was having to wait for the next installment of Bonanza.
But back then has its own ghost images of armament build-up,
its own static-y pixels of injustices that flash beneath clean-cut white cowboys and
blonde horses.

We still identify with our heroes, now flat-screen knights in high-definition armor:
For eight prime-time years we were psychics and mediums, those Great Deciders who go
beyond laws and constitutional rights because a little voice tells them to.
We were mediocre reality-show contestants yearning for a fifteen-minute touch of
media Svengali
We were bloodthirsty paranormals who, sure of some great cosmic pattern that
common mortals wouldn’t understand, justified war to save humanity.
We were omniscient know-it-alls who sat in spider-dens of high-definition surveillance
We were plugged-in technical virtuosos in forensic labs and behind-the-scenes
commando raids.
We were above the law, below the radar, over the top, beyond mortal ken.

No wonder when we are hated, despised, laughed at, threatened, and killed.

So—we change our president: faith-based to people-based, insular to cosmopolitan, sound-bytes to elaboration, yes-men to debaters, threats to communication, isolation to interdependence, secrecy to transparency, black gold to green energy, division to union—like changing the channel from one hero to the other.

Yes, we can, we say.

And what will happen when the day after the inauguration turns into one of those weekend afternoons, when you flick through hundreds of cable channels, all proclaiming the change you need but looking the same?

Our primetime heroes are bigger than us, they are grander.
They have better teeth, more hair where we want there to be more, less where we wish
we didn’t have to wax.
They have more guns, better ideas, they never tire or give up hope.
They don’t get laid off, worry about paying health care premiums, or work minimum
wage—unless it serves a dramatic or comedic function.
But they have our DNA
our DNA that shouldn’t sit back on Target daybeds with bags of organic chips and bottles
of microbrewery beer, changing channels.

Change? We have to metamorphose, turn from us versus them to us AND them, which
will make
for boring TV,
but why not turn off the flat-screen and play a game of catch with your neighbor?
Or better yet, do something to make a difference.

Effect a change.